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CHARLATAN: City Full of Ghosts

Chapter one:  Eviction Notice  (sample)


As I pulled the slightly beat-up ghostmobile into the driveway, I saw the owner of the house waiting for me outside. He pointedly checked his watch, looking displeased. Or possibly constipated. Either way, he wasn’t happy. He was a gray-haired man in his fifties, immaculately groomed, wearing a tailored charcoal suit. You didn’t own a Victorian mansion on Queen Anne Hill unless you had money, and money, in my experience, meant attitude.

He probably thought he would be dealing with some sort of pest exterminator, a kid in a backwards ball-cap who’d be spraying for ghosts and then thanking him for a five-dollar tip. Men like him tend to make assumptions like that. No problem. I have a little routine I go through that fixes those kinds of preconceptions.

I stepped out of the car and struck a pose. Not too dramatic, but full of conviction. I surveyed the house with narrowed eyes as though it were a mountain I was about to climb, or an opponent I was about to defeat. The owner strode up to greet me, scowling.

“Mr. Cryczek…?”

I deliberately ignored him, continuing to scrutinize the house as though I were seeing something there that no one else could see. Men like him don’t expect to be ignored, and it really throws them off, which gives me the upper hand. When a sufficient number of seconds had passed, I turned from the house and acknowledged him, giving him a controlled smile and extending my hand.

“Good evening,” I said. “Mr. Stamford? Pleased to meet you. I’m Kristofer Cryczek.” I shook his hand firmly, while giving him my best professional face. Appearing professional is everything in this game. I wear a black police-style tactical uniform with lace-up boots, bloused pants and fitted shirt with ‘Seattle P.I.E.’ stitched in white above the left pocket flap. Between the outfit and my studied attitude of professionalism, I like to think I distract my clients sufficiently from the fact that I’m only twenty-five and have no actual credentials.

“You’re ten minutes late, Mr. Cryczek.  I’ve been…”

“Don’t worry, Mr. Stamford,” I interrupted, “you’re in good hands. I am among the top twenty investigators in my field of study, world-wide.” This wasn’t true, but it certainly couldn’t be proven to be false. Paranormal investigation isn’t a legitimate science, and there are no official ratings.

“Let’s just get on with this, Mr. Cryczek,” said Stamford, still scowling. I could tell he was a man who was used to giving orders and being obeyed, and he wasn’t at all comfortable with having to rely on me or my dubious expertise. Still, at least I had him taking me seriously.

“So,” I said, “I understand a troublesome paranormal presence has manifested in your house. A manifestation with both audible and visible elements.”

Stamford nodded impatiently. “I explained all this to your secretary on the phone.”

“Yes,” I said, “I read the report. Sometimes with these cases, what appears to be a haunting can turn out to be attributable to more mundane phenomena, so I like to confirm the details of sightings. That way neither of us wastes our time. Would you mind going over it with me again, briefly?”

He gave me an irritated nod and a terse response. “All right, sure, what do you need to know?”

This was an unusual attitude in my profession. Most of my clients loved telling me about their ghosts, and considered my visit an exciting occurrence. Stamford just seemed annoyed that he was having to take time out of his day to deal with his haunted house.

“Let’s start with the noises.”

“I’ve been hearing them for a while,” he said, checking his watch again. “Creaking boards, that sort of thing, you expect in an old house, but it’s gotten worse. And lately we’ve been hearing a strange voice, whispering in a language I don’t recognize. And the room is always cold. I mentioned that most of these things occur in my study, I believe. I’ve got a space heater in there, but it doesn’t seem to help much. I don’t know where the heat goes. And there’s the books. I have bookshelves in the study, and books keep falling out of them when no one’s around. Sometimes other things get moved around or knocked down. It’s been happening more and more lately. And then there’s the sickness.”


“Yeah.” He looked nervously at the house, and ran his fingers through his perfect hair. “I used to spend a lot of time working in the study. Just before all this other stuff started, I began getting sick. Just sort of tired, run-down. Weak. I thought I was coming down with something, but I never had any other symptoms. Then, earlier this month I took a break and stopped spending time in the study. After a few days I got better. I thought it was a coincidence, but then I started working in there again, and this last weekend I noticed I was feeling weak and run-down again, like before.”

I nodded sagely, as though these experiences were telling me something. “At one point you said ‘we.’ Others have experienced these phenomena?”

Stamford nodded, an uncomfortable expression crossing his face. “Yeah, my kids. They visit every other weekend. They’ve heard the noises, too. I don’t let them in the study though.”

“I see. I’m particularly interested in the visual manifestations you mentioned. Can you tell me about them, please?”

He looked around, like he was embarrassed to tell me about this part. “There are some I can’t be sure about. I’d see something moving from the corner of my eye, but when I’d look there’d be nothing there. Or I’d see a shadow that didn’t seem to belong, but when I’d look more closely it’d be gone. But there have been other times when I’ve seen a shape, sort of vaguely man-like, but wavery. Misty, you know, but dark, like it was made of smoke. Right there in the room with me. But then it’d be gone a second later.”

He gave me a sidelong look as he paused, as though checking to see if I was going to laugh at him. I kept a completely straight face, and nodded encouragingly. He continued, a little more hesitantly. “Once, it looked like this smoky figure had a face. A skull-face. Creepy. But I don’t know. It was gone so quickly. I might have imagined that part.”

“I see,” I said, nodding gravely as though his testimony was perfectly reasonable. “What you’ve described are fairly advanced paranormal manifestations. Most of them I’ve encountered numerous times before. But a visible figure, that’s particularly unusual. Spirits are rarely able to form a body on the physical plane. To manifest a form that we can see, even for a few seconds, takes great concentration on their part. This ghost must have a strong motivation. A great desire to contact you.”

He was still watching me carefully, trying to discern whether I was taking him seriously or just humoring him. I continued my spiel, straight-faced. “Just so you know, my techniques for dealing with ghosts are humane.”

“What?” He gave me a perplexed look.

“I will deal with your ghost in a humane manner. The ghost will not be harmed. First, I will attempt to communicate with it. If the ghost proves to be cogent, I will try to convince it to pass on to the next world on its own. This is the least… difficult way of dealing with a ghost. The optimal outcome. If this doesn’t work, I may have to use stronger methods. We will discuss them if it becomes necessary. Do you have any questions?”

Stamford shook his head. “No. Well, one… I’d like to go in with you, and see how it goes. Would that be all right?”

I nodded. “Of course.” The clients always want to watch, and I encourage them to. Having them see the whole routine is an important part of the process.

“So!” I clapped my hands, signaling that the huddle was over and it was time for action. “If you’re ready, we’ll serve the eviction notice on your ghost!” With that I turned and walked to the back of the ghostmobile, pulling out my keys and opening the trunk.

The ghostmobile was just a somewhat battered dark blue Hyundai with the words ‘Seattle Paranormal Investigations & Evictions’ written on the sides in white vinyl letters. The ghostmobile wasn’t the most impressive ride ever, but it was what I had. I was planning on trading in the Hyundai for a nice black mini-van or something, once I had the money.

I reached into the trunk and pulled out a complicated conglomeration of electronic devices, cords, hoses and straps. I unfolded the contraption carefully and then hoisted it onto me, settling the shoulder-straps and buckling the waist-belt. The bulk of it hung on my back like a backpack, but a folding arm held a couple of screens and a panel of switches right in front of my navel, with an array of small camera lenses, microphones and other, less-identifiable sensors projecting out in front. It was an impressive collection of electronics. Stamford certainly looked impressed as he watched me powering the thing up, flipping switches, twisting knobs and checking the screens as they came to life. Multi-colored LED lights blinked from various surfaces of the apparatus, little beeps and pings sounded, gauges fluttered and settled.

“What is that?” Stamford asked when it became clear that I wasn’t going to volunteer the information.

“It’s several things,” I said, affecting a casual, distracted manner. “EMF meter, for detecting electromagnetic fields. Directional temperature gauge. Digital aneroid barometer. Natural EM meter. Infra-red camera. EVP recorder. Technology for detecting, locating and communicating with spiritual manifestations.” I glanced up at Stamford and gave him a little smile. “The science of paranormal investigation has come a long way since séances and Ouija boards.”

“I see,” said Stamford, the glimmerings of a grudging respect for my strange expertise showing in his voice.

That was when we heard the throaty whine of a two-stroke motor approaching rapidly down the road toward us, and I knew what it meant.  I cursed under my breath and closed my eyes, willing the scooter to go on by, but I knew it wouldn’t.  I didn’t have to look, but Stamford turned and watched as the scooter pulled into the driveway, parked, and went silent.

“Got here just in time!” said the all-too-familiar voice.  “Looks like you were gonna start without me, partner!”

“Go home, Jinks,” I said with exaggerated patience.  I finally turned around and acknowledged him with a burdened sigh and a pleading look.  He grinned a gap-toothed grin, completely ignoring my none-too-subtle hints.

Jinks dressed like a hard-core punk-rocker from the eighties, with circus clown highlights. His well-scuffed leather pants were sewn with brightly-colored patches for bands like the Sex Pistols, Skinny Puppy and Messianic Cow; his sleeveless denim jacket was painted all over with crude, angry faces and graffiti-style lettering, largely obscured by band buttons and more patches. His skinny, pale arms were heavily tattooed, and he had an assortment of rings and studs piercing his nose, lips, eyebrows and ears. Mascara heavily lined his eyes, with a vertical black streak radiating up across his forehead and down across his cheek from each eye.

Jinks addressed Stamford, ignoring me.  “Good to meet you, Sir!  Don’t worry, we’ll have that nasty ol’ ghost out of your house before you can say ‘blow me with my own mouth.’”

“Pay no attention to him,” I said.  “He’s not with me.”

“I’m his back-up!” said Jinks, pulling off his sticker-covered helmet and hanging it on the handlebar. His hair was an explosion of drooping lime-green day-glo spikes.  “I wait out here while he does his business in there, unless there’s trouble.  When the shit hits the applecart, I speak softly and carry a big honkin’ bat!”

“He’s not my back-up,” I clarified.  “He doesn’t work for me, never has.  Crazy guy, follows me around.  I tell him to leave, but he never does.”

Stamford was looking back and forth between us, a scowl on his face.  I knew I needed to get him away from Jinks as quickly as possible, before the remaining remnant of my credibility was completely shot to hell.  I slammed the trunk and turned toward the house.  “Shall we go in, Mr. Stamford?”

As I strode toward the door, Stamford fell in beside me, giving Jinks one last nervous look.  I glanced back to see Jinks grinning and sticking his tongue out shockingly far, making some incomprehensible gesture with both hands.

“I apologize for the clown,” I said with a sigh. “He applied for a job with me a few weeks ago. I turned him down, no qualifications. Now he follows me everywhere. Obsessed with ghosts, I think.”

“I see,” said Stamford.  “He does appear somewhat… unhinged.”

I nodded.  “He’s worse than he looks.”

"I'm relieved that he's not coming in the house with us.  Bad enough I've got a ghost, I don't want to have to count the silverware, too."

The slate sky was gradually dimming, the Seattle equivalent of a sunset. The wan gray light cast no shadows, oozing down from the entire sky at once, flattening depths and dulling colors. Stamford’s house was rendered in tones of gray, shadowed by spidery leafless trees, its clapboard walls and dark windows looming over us as we approached. I’d have to see it in daylight to tell you what color it was. It was a large two-story Victorian built in the Queen Anne style, though not as elaborate and flowery as most representatives of that school of architecture. I had to admit that it fit the image of a classic haunted house perfectly. Behind the railings and ball-topped newel posts, the unlit porch looked like the mouth of a cave. As I stumped up the steps beside Stamford and entered the profound gloom, I actually felt a little tingle of fear, and I had to smile. Haunted houses just didn’t get much spookier than this.

“I’ve left all the lights off, as your secretary instructed,” said Stamford. “Something about not disturbing the ambient energy of the setting.”

“Yes, it’s important to minimize distractions, to put the presence at ease,” I said with a completely straight face. “Have you had the TV on or anything like that today?”

“I’ve been staying in a hotel downtown for the past four days,” he said. “This afternoon was the first time I’ve returned in that time. Everything seemed all right, though I didn’t go into the room where… you know.”

“Good,” I said. “Now, when we go in, I don’t want you to tell me where the manifestations occurred. Let me find the source of the disturbance on my own, using my instruments. To keep this a scientific process. Afterward we can confirm that it’s the same location. Sound good?”

Stamford nodded solemnly. “That makes sense.”

I nodded toward the doorknob, and Stamford opened the door. We entered a modest Victorian foyer, lit only by the dim gray light from outside. Once the door was closed, there was only the uneven glow from the cut-glass transom above the door. As the stillness of the old house settled over us, I looked around, getting acclimated to the atmosphere.

The house had character, the sort that only very old homes have. The ceilings were high, the spaces narrow, the walls cluttered with badly-arranged photographs of smiling women and children and serious-looking men in suits. The wainscoting and doorways were done in dark-stained hardwood peppered with holes and dents. The floor beneath my feet felt mushy and creaked as I shifted my weight. But the old place was clean and in good repair, the air bright with a synthetic floral scent.

When I glanced at Stamford, I could see a tension in the man that hadn’t been there when we were outside. Stamford truly believed there was a ghost in this house, and it scared him. I’m a reasonably good judge of character, and I thought I had a pretty good reading on him at this point. He was a practical, canny sort of man, arrogant but intelligent, with a degree of skepticism in him. He didn’t seem to have much imagination, and probably wasn’t given to flights of fancy. Yet, something had convinced him that he had a ghost in his house. Whatever the combination of factors that had brought him to that belief, he hadn’t arrived there lightly. This wasn’t going to be an easy job.

Twice while we stood there I saw the man glance nervously toward the open doorway to the right. I tended to my equipment, setting base-levels and fine-tuning several knobs, then began slowly scanning the house with slow, sweeping rotations of my body. After a full minute of this I zeroed in on the doorway Stamford had been glancing at, and stopped.

“Bit of an EM disturbance in that direction,” I said aloud. “I’m going to say that our manifestation is in that part of the house.” “Yes,” said Stamford, the word coming out with the discernible rush of emotion that comes with having one’s questionable beliefs confirmed. I knew that tone, and it meant I was on track. Stamford had undoubtedly been wrestling with his own innate skepticism, and it was a tremendous relief to him that I was able to detect the ghost he believed was there.

I led the way through the arched doorway, entering a comfortable, compact living room, which had probably been a drawing room when the house was originally built back in the eighteen hundreds. I moved slowly, turning from side to side, scanning. I watched the digital readout of the EM meter rise and fall slightly in response to the electromagnetic fields produced by electrical outlets and fixtures, a TV set and a stereo. I paused in the middle of the room to scan all around me. Out of the corner of my eye I watched Stamford. The man was growing more nervous, and his nervousness seemed directed toward the closed door to the left of the fireplace. I waited until I’d seen more than one nervous glance in that direction before committing myself. “That way,” I said, pointing my equipment toward that door. “I’m picking up some strong EM emissions.” “Yes,” said Stamford. “The study. That’s where… the manifestations have been.”

I turned on the camera, and my largest screen lit up with a wildly colorful pop-art version of the door before me. “Infra-red,” I explained. “It shows temperature variations, represented by color. Sometimes if the ghost is not manifesting physically, we can still see it by the temperature difference.” I gestured toward the door. “Can you open the door for me?” Stamford took a deep breath and stepped forward. His hand trembled slightly as he gripped the knob and pushed the door open. He stepped back quickly, and peered into the darkness of the study.

I stepped back too, and said “Whoah.” Not because there was anything there, but for dramatic effect.

“What?” said Stamford nervously.

“EM spike!” I lied, pointing at the smaller screen before me, which Stamford couldn’t see since I’d stepped back. “It’s going back down now.” I moved the array from side to side, noticing the moderate electromagnetic field around the laptop on one side of the study. The directional temperature gauge did show the room was nine degrees cooler than it was out here, but the door had been closed, so that was hardly significant. Half a dozen books lay on the floor, several sprawled open, their pages bent and crumpled against the rug. A lamp lay on its side on the desk, the shade askew.

I flipped some switches on my console, resulting in some clicks and beeps from my equipment. The soft sound of static issued from the box on my back. Watching the digital readouts on my screens intently, I moved slowly into the room. Stamford hung back, standing in the doorway. I stopped two steps inside, carefully positioning myself so that Stamford could see the screens from where he stood.

“Very strong natural EM readings, at that end of the room,” I whispered. “Temperature fluctuations, too.” I shivered for effect, rubbing one hand along my bare arm as though I were feeling a chill. It was quite a bit cooler in the room, but the rigged digital readout on my screen showed that it was even colder than that. Stamford, who hadn’t actually entered the room yet, accepted the cues and believed that the room had a significant chill in it. I made precise adjustments to several knobs with my left hand, while my right wrapped casually around the folding arm that supported the screens. On the underside of the arm, my fingers surreptitiously manipulated a row of sliders. The crackle of static rose and fell, accompanied by fluctuations on a couple of prominent digital displays on my screen.

“What does that mean?” Stamford whispered anxiously.

“It usually indicates an ectoplasmic presence,” I whispered back. I slowly turned my body, scanning the rest of the room, and with the sliders made the readings and static die down when I was pointed anywhere but at the far wall. “I think there is definitely a ghost in here,” I hissed in a dramatic stage-whisper. I turned toward the room and cleared my throat.

“Ghost!” I called out. “I know you’re in here. Please show yourself to us if you can!” Then I waited expectantly.

Inside the largest box on my rig there was a small gas burner in an enclosed chamber. The clicking that had issued from the box before I entered the room had been the electric igniter. I could feel the heat against my back now. With my right hand I pushed a hidden toggle-switch, and a nearly-silent computer-exhaust fan began blowing the hot air down a tube to the array of sensors on the arm in front of me. The tube ended in a nozzle that angled downward toward the floor, aimed at a spot about four feet in front of me. Hot air was now blowing gently out of the nozzle, wafting against the floor, and then rising, as hot air will do. A few dust-bunnies were swirled around by the moving air, a detail Stamford was quick to notice.

“Something’s happening,” he whispered, pointing down.

I nodded. I began raising the natural EM reading, increasing the soft sound of static at the same time. On my largest screen, a dramatic change was occurring. The infra-red camera was registering the rising column of warm air directly in front of me, showing it as a soft-edged, wavering form of red and orange, stark against the blues and purples of the room.

“Oh my god!” gasped Stamford, pointing at the screen. “There it is!”

“It’s the ghost,” I confirmed in a hushed voice. “A very strong manifestation.”

Stamford glanced back and forth between the dark study before him and the same room shown on the screen, now dominated by a ghostly figure. If he’d had doubts about the ghost’s existence before, he certainly had none now. Though he couldn’t see it in the room with his naked eyes, he trusted the infra-red image shown on the screen.

“I’m going to try to communicate with the ghost now,” I whispered. Then I spoke loudly and clearly into the room. “Please don’t be frightened, I’m here to help you. I know you’re here. I know you’re unhappy. I can help you, if you will talk to me. Will you let me help you? Will you speak with me?”

After speaking I flipped a switch and paused, as if listening. Stamford listened too, but as the silence lengthened he shook his head. “It’s not saying anything,” he whispered.

I nodded, and pressed a button on my console. There was a soft beep, and then a harsh rumbling sound issued from a speaker on the apparatus. I tilted my head as though listening intently. From the corner of my eye I could see Stamford looking at me quizzically. Usually, my clients recognized this part of the routine from reality TV and knew what to expect, but apparently Stamford didn’t watch those shows. After almost ten seconds of the low droning rumble and random burps of ambient noise, there was a sound that rose above it, a sound that could be interpreted as the word “Yes.” I nodded profoundly and turned to Stamford.

“When ghosts speak,” I explained, “it’s in the sub-aural range, too low for human ears to hear. That’s why people can’t hear them most of the time. This device,” I tapped the speaker, “records sounds in the sub-aural range, then plays them back in a wavelength we can hear.” Stamford’s eyes widened. “So that was the ghost’s voice we just heard?”

“Yes,” I said. “We’re fortunate. Not all ghosts are coherent. I suspected this one might be able to communicate when you told me it was able to manifest physically. Perhaps we can deal with this one without unpleasantness.”


I frowned and shook my head. “I’m hoping it won’t be necessary.” I turned back toward the empty room. “I’m going to try to learn why the ghost is haunting your house. Knowing why a ghost stays is the first step in convincing it to leave.” I raised my voice, again speaking loudly and distinctly. “Ghost, can you tell us your name?”

Again I flipped the switch and waited for twenty seconds, then hit the playback button, and together we listened to the deep droning and random clutter of sub-aural background noises, waiting for words to appear.

The EVP playback recorder was a standard of ghost investigators everywhere, mainly because it was used as a matter of course on the “Ghost Stalkers” TV show. The idea that ghosts spoke in a range of sound too low for the human ear to hear had become such a trope, thanks to that show and others like it, that the public accepted it without question. I had bought the mass-produced device online, along with my other ghost-hunting gear. My friend Arlen, who had assembled this confabulation of hokum for me, had made a modification to it, adding a second track that dubbed in a pre-recorded voice on cue. After all, I didn’t have time to wait for odd random noises that could be interpreted as words. I needed there to be no doubt that the ghost was speaking.

About ten seconds into the recording, a gravelly, heavily distorted voice rose over the background noise. “I am… Gregory Nilsson,” it said in an odd cadence that made it seem all the more otherworldly.

I looked up. “I think the ghost said its name… Did it sound like Gregory Nilsson to you?”

“Yes!” said Stamford with growing excitement. “The house was built by the Nilsson family in 1895. Four generations of Nilssons lived here before they sold it. One of them could have been named Gregory.”

I nodded again. “Good. We are making progress.” In fact, I knew that a Gregory Nilsson had died in this house in 1922. I had researched it, first on the internet and then at the County Recorder’s office on Fourth Avenue, just that afternoon, before recording the ghostly half of this conversation. Stamford might find the same thing later on, if he got curious about his ghost and searched Seattle’s public records himself.

“Gregory,” I asked next, “we can tell you are upset. Why are you so angry?”

The ghost’s somewhat garbled response was, “Angry… hurt me… bad…”

“Who hurt you, Gregory?”

“Man… shot me… chest hurts…”

I turned to Stamford and whispered, “Ghosts are often murder victims. They’re in shock when they’re murdered, and don’t realize they’re dying. Their spirit is caught in the same state of anger and confusion after death. We must make the ghost realize what has happened.” I turned back to the ghost, speaking loudly and slowly.

“Gregory, the man who shot you. You are angry at that man, aren’t you?”

The readings spiked, the static waxing loud for a moment, thanks to a little twiddling from my right forefinger. Then the playback: “Angry… kill him…”

“Gregory, the man who shot you has been punished. He is dead now.”


“He’s dead now, Gregory. You have been avenged.”

Stamford leaned close and whispered, “How do you know…”

“Ssshhh… I don’t know if the murderer was caught, but he’s almost certainly dead by now, right? The ghost needs to have closure.” I spoke again to the ghost. “Gregory, there is something else I must tell you. You must listen carefully, this is very important. Gregory, the man who shot you... Gregory, he killed you. He shot you dead. You are dead, Gregory.”

The next twenty-second play-back held no response, due to the fact that I didn’t push the hidden button that cued the recorded sound-bites. I couldn’t have things go too smoothly, after all. So I patiently tried again. “You are dead, Gregory. There’s no reason for you to linger here any longer. It’s time to move on now.”

I was just beginning to record the next cycle when there was a tremor in the small room, like a minor earthquake. A deep rumbling rose and fell, with a vibration I could feel in the floor, and the lamp lying on the table rattled.

I froze for a moment. This wasn’t part of my presentation. I didn’t have any devices that could make the room vibrate like that! Maybe it was an earthquake, that just happened to have rolled through at this particular moment. Some freak coincidence. That was the only explanation I could think of. The best thing I could do would be to play along, add the earthquake to my scenario.

“The ghost is resisting the truth,” I whispered to Stamford. “He doesn’t want to accept his own death!” Stamford nodded, wide-eyed. Another tremor hit us, and the lamp rolled off the desk and onto the floor, the light bulb exploding as it hit. Several books tumbled from the shelves, joining the others on the rug. The air in the study swirled, breaking up the column of warm air that had looked so much like a ghost on the monitor, and a sudden chill hit us, the temperature actually dropping another ten degrees or more. Behind Stamford, who had edged into the room during the ghostly conversation, the door slammed shut. Without the dim light filtering into the room through the doorway it was considerably darker, but the glow of my screens provided enough light to see a little bit. In that near-darkness, it seemed as though there were shadows moving along the walls and bookcases, shadows that shouldn’t be there.

I looked wildly around me, the chill that was shooting down my spine and freezing my bowels having nothing to do with the drop in temperature. This was not part of the show! What was going on?

“What’s happening?” Stamford quavered. “Is Gregory angry at us?”

I turned on him. “You arranged this, didn’t you? Having a little fun, scaring the ghost-guy?”

Stamford stared at me. “What are you talking about?”

A book floated between us, levitating slowly through the air. I looked around, and saw a dozen or more books drifting weightlessly around the room, more lifting off the shelves as I watched. I reached out to wave my hand over the top of the drifting book nearest me, and was startled to find that there was no wire supporting it. The frigid air seemed to thicken, and in my peripheral vision I glimpsed a dark figure standing in the room with us. It seemed to have both mass and presence. I instantly turned to look, but it was gone when I looked directly at it. Yet, somehow, I knew it was still there. I could feel its presence, instinctually. I started to reach toward it, responding to a half-formed intention to see if the figure could be felt, when a tiny yellow spark appeared in mid-air right about where the figure’s chest would have been. Electricity arced from the spark to my fingers, and I yanked my hand back with a cry. It felt as though I’d touched a live wire.

There seemed to be a pressure building in the room now, I could feel it on my skin as well as in my ears, and on one of my screens the meter that recorded barometric pressure was leaping into the red zone, which was impossibly high. Again a deep rumble rolled through the floor. Books were floating all around us, moving faster and in jagged patterns, and flying papers from the desk filled the air over our heads, whirling agitatedly. I looked at Stamford, but he was just looking back at me, apparently frozen in fear. Tiny lightnings danced outward from that hovering spark, leaping toward the lamp and the computer. Stamford was trying to say something, but the pressure against my eardrums was so great it sounded like he was bellowing underwater.

This wasn’t anything that Stamford could have set up, I realized in that moment. There were no special effects I’d ever heard of that could cause this. What in hell was happening here? Was it possible that ghosts were… real?

The rumbling and vibrations rose to a crescendo, the air density becoming painful against my eardrums, and then, abruptly, it all stopped. The heavy air in the room rushed away, creating a gust that knocked both of us over, Stamford falling full-length on the floor while I stumbled back two steps and bounced off the doorjamb before going down. Books rained down around us. The lightning arced to my equipment, and all the screens and LED lights went out, leaving the room in utter darkness.

Again the lightning arced, and in the flash I saw the shadowy figure again for just a second, standing over Stamford’s sprawled form. It was still vague and transparent, but fully visible now in my direct vision. In the after-image that formed on my retina I thought I could see a skull-like face, the body an amorphous mass of roiling black smoke through which I glimpsed patches of dark, rotting cloth wrapped mummy-style around its torso, with impossibly thin arms and ghostly, skeletal fingers. Then the room returned to darkness, and a book hit me hard on the back of the head.

There was a final bright, crackling flash, lighting up the whole room, and everything was caught in freeze-frame; books tumbling toward the floor, papers whirling above, and the skull-faced shadow-figure leaning downward, reaching its long, thin arms into Stamford’s body. Again the room went black, the tiny yellow spark going dead.

And then Stamford screamed.

I climbed to my feet and threw myself toward the door. I bounced off of the hard, solid wood, regained my balance with difficulty, fumbled, found the knob, and threw it open. Only when I was in the next room did I look back into the dark study.

Stamford was lying on the floor, writhing slowly, eyes rolled back in his head, muttering in a language I had never heard before, his voice strained and unnatural. I stared in horror, filled with a sudden certainty that Stamford had been possessed. I was beyond rational thought, responding only to the terror and revulsion that was raging in me. I tore my eyes from the sight of Stamford’s twisting, muttering body and bolted for the front door. I pounded down the porch steps and stumbled toward the flowerbed, the weight of my equipment toppling me over, and I fell among the greenery, tumbled once, rose to my knees, bent over and began to vomit.

When I was done I rose, wiping my mouth, to see Jinks standing a few feet away, leaning back against a tree and grinning. “Hey Wuss,” he chuckled. “Looks like you could use some back-up.”

“Piss off,” I growled, climbing to my feet. I didn’t want to think about what I’d just seen, but something terrible had happened to Stamford, and I couldn’t deny that. I pulled out my cell-phone, thinking about calling the police, but I hesitated before dialing, wondering what I would tell them. Finally I slid the phone back into its holster and turned toward the house. I didn’t want to go back in there, but I had to know what had happened to Stamford. If there was anything that could be done for the guy, I had to do it. Unbuckling the straps, I shucked my ghost equipment, setting it down on the grass. As I started for the door, Jinks fell in beside me. “All right then,” he said, “let’s go kick some ghost ass!”

I stopped and spun to face Jinks. “How many times do I have to tell you, Jinks? You’re not with me! I don’t need your help! Why can’t you just go back to whatever retro-punk garage-band you usually hang out with and…”

“You’re really scared, aren’t you?” Jinks interrupted. “Something happened in there, and you ran away like a little girl. Check your pants, I think you wet yourself.”

“Jinks,” I said through gritted teeth, “whatever this is, you are the last asshole I’d call. Piss off! Toddle away! Get out of my…”

That was where I ran out of steam. The bastard was standing there grinning at me like he’d just won the game, and he had. I’d been yelling at him like a psychotic cabbie. I shut up, unclenched my hands and turned back toward the house. Again I started for the door, only to be stopped in my tracks a second time.

Stamford was standing on the porch, looking around at his yard and the twilit street beyond, and smiling. His tie was askew, his perfect hair badly mussed, but other than that he seemed to be fine.

“Uh, Mr. Stamford?” I said, astonished.

Stamford turned to me slowly, the smile never leaving his face. “Good evening,” he said incongruously, as though we were meeting for the first time. “Lovely night, isn’t it?” There was something very different, very off, about the man. The way he spoke, the way he moved, the way he smiled, were all strange and unnatural, somehow. Creepy.

I stepped closer, peering at him, trying to see his face better in the failing light. “Mr. Stamford, are you all right?”

“Quite well, thank you,” he said slowly, again looking around, and taking a deep breath as though the air were especially sweet.

“You, um, weren’t hurt or anything in there…?”

Stamford glanced back at me as though surprised and slightly annoyed I was still there. “Hurt? No, no, everything’s fine. In fact, everything is marvelous! If you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go for a little walk.”

He stepped carefully down the stairs, smiling that ghastly, unnatural smile the whole time. His movements were slow and cautious, like a man who is drunk but trying hard not to show it. When he reached the walk he turned and strolled toward me, still smiling. His walk was strange; he seemed to be lifting his feet just a little bit higher than necessary, planting each step too carefully, as though walking was a new experience for him. He was apparently going to walk right past me without so much as a nod, but I reached out and grabbed his upper arm, stopping him.

“Mr. Stamford,” I said uncertainly, looking closely at his face, “are you sure you’re all right? Something happened in there…”

Stamford’s idiot smile faltered, and annoyance darkened his features as he shook his arm loose from my grip. “Look, I assure you… I assure you I’m fine. Now stop bothering me. I have places to go.” With that, he turned and walked off down the sidewalk, disappearing into the gathering dusk.

I watched him go, my mouth hanging open stupidly. “What the hell…”

“Another satisfied customer, huh partner?”

“Piss off, Jinks.”

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