Web Site: Lighthearted Darkness
What happens when a private investigator runs amock of the supernatural.
It was nearly twenty ‘til ten when the call came in. I thought it was Sharon
and didn’t want to pick up. A Bruins/Sabers game was well in progress on the small black & white in Darren’s office, and he’d gone out about half an hour before to grab us some Chinese. It was sort of a boys’ night out since I was sleeping on the couch in my own office next door so Sharon would have plenty of time to enjoy a round of temper tantrums while she and her new beau continued to move her crap out of the apartment she and I had shared. It was for the best she was leaving anyway. I’m not into threesomes.
It was the phone in the reception area that was ringin’ and not my personal
line, but I thought it could be Sharon anyway, tryin’ to trick me into
answering. Business hours were from nine ‘til...well office hours ran ‘til
five thirty weekdays, but a good case could keep either one of us busy 24/7
indefinitely so long as the money kept coming in.
Silence, except for the game. The caller was listening to the after hours
choices the computer was offering. A moment’s pause and then the sleek black
number on Darren’s desk began to ring. The computer would’ve caught it again,
but I wanted to be polite in case Peg was calling and had lost her husband’s
new cell phone number again.
“Sallingowski & Pete,” I grunted.
“Try door number two,” I suggested, wincing when the slow caller hesitated.
I’m a rather blunt, get-in-get-out nobody-gets-hurt kinda guy. Chop chop. Cold and efficient. That’s why Darren has me do more research than legwork. I’m not much of a people person.
A deep breath. “Um...okay. I’ve tried telling the police this, but they won’t
do anything when this sort of stuff goes on anymore-”
“What stuff, ma’am?” She sounded elderly or just weak and tired.
My eyes opened a tad bit wider and the volume on the TV seemed to go down.
“Are you sure?”
“I know ghost fighting when I see it.”
“How would you know it if you saw it? Ghost fighting’s been illegal for twenty
years. They don’t even make bad movies about it anymore.”
The voice lowered and I had to stretch to physically turn the volume down on
the game now just to hear her. “Go to Meng’s Dynasty on 22nd and Mikkel Road.”
A click. A dial tone.
My shoes were under the couch, my jacket draped over the doorknob. I met
Darren on my way out of the office.
“I got you orange beef with a side of cho-cho,” he mentioned from within an
invisible haze of garlic and sesame oil aroma.
“What’s at Meng’s Dynasty?” I asked him, thumbing through my wallet to make
sure I had taxi fare, and the poor guy’s face went slack.
* * *
Demons don’t exist--at least they never have in my experience--but that’s what
Lady Meng was supposed to have illegally in some back room of the restaurant she lived in. It all had to do with the last great ghost fights of the Eighties. Lady Meng had somehow rounded up a demon and unleashed it on all of the other unsuspecting old ladies and witch wannabe teens who enjoyed contacting those who had passed on, then pitting ‘em against each other for fun. Because nobody thought bringin’ demons in was fair (mainly ‘cause nobody else seemed to be able to summon one) a lot of complaints were brought against the wealthy Chinese beauty, and a lot of destruction was attributed to her
invisible warrior, as if something could actually be done against it. The
courts wouldn’t listen to such outlandishness, and they don’t make handcuffs for ghosts, so while nobody ever officially admitted that ghosts even existed, the old parlor game of ghost fighting was outlawed, and all ghosts were required to be sent “into the light.” There still weren’t any rules regarding demons, though.
Darren refused to accompany me and even warned me not to go. He made sure all
of my paperwork was in order regarding next of kin before I actually departed.
He was a nice enough guy, but he never actually smiled, so it was always a
little hard to tell when he was joking or not.
Meng’s Dynasty took up an entire city block. It was a two-story affair with
Lady Meng’s living quarters taking up the whole top. The building was squat,
with extended, arcing filigree in a sort of modernized pagoda style, mostly
black and glass and stone with bright red panels highlighting it here and
there. The front was horseshoe shaped to partially surround a rock waterfall
that cascaded into a bamboo-fringed koi pool. It was kitchy, but classy, and
undoubtedly beyond my meals allowance range. At ten thirty at night, it had
also been closed for a full half hour, so I paid the cabby and took a long
walk around the impressive structure, looking for a way to alert the occupant
upstairs that I had arrived.
A small, dented car pulled up near a corner I was just coming upon. Kid with a couple of flat packages got out and walked smartly toward an amber light
coming from behind the building. I rounded the corner and smelled pizza. For a crisp fifty, he let me take the packages and asked if I’d drop off the
insulated bags later.
Three extra-large pizzas? ‘course, extra-large was the old large and large was the old medium and nobody even pretended there was a smaller pizza than that anymore. Lady Meng was not alone, then. I wondered what kind of toppings demons liked?
An ugly button in an oxidizing chrome faceplate produced an ugly
warehouse-type note of alarm like I’d backed a semi up to the place for
unloading or something. A moment later a young Chinese guy with tousled black
hair smiled at me while he kept a damp towel clutched around his middle, and
since there was no place to conceal a wallet, he let me follow him inside.
At a cheap formica table with chrome trim perched a tiny figure in richly
embroidered silk, red lacquered sticks securing a thick black bun at the back
of her head. They were watching the Bruins game. I decided I liked this place.
“Lady Meng?” I asked, and the kid who’d let me in showed his first signs of
suspicion of me.
Oddly, I’d thought she’d turn to me with a powder-white face, pouty, tiny,
plump red lips smiling demurely, the shape of her eyes accented with heavy
black streaks. Instead, the face which turned toward me was wrinkled and
Band-Aid colored, free of any makeup at all, and the thing on her head clearly
a rather expensive wig. She smiled anyway, though her eyes told me she had no idea who I really was. “There’s a badge in my tea cup,” she said through what was left of her teeth, tilting the black speckled bone China cup so I could
see the residue within it.
* * *
Cheng was one of four male concubines Lady Meng kept along with her demon.
Well, perhaps concubine isn’t exactly the right word, but they did do
everything and anything she asked them, from dressing her in something more
appropriate for visitors, to finding her jewel-framed eyeglasses and massaging her tiny, misshapen feet before putting fresh slippers on her. She was one of those old broads who inherited when her hubby bit the dust, then lived simply with only a few small luxuries while she worked her small windfall into the classiest eatery in town. A few small luxuries like Cheng and Po and Tony and Fun. Tony was a Latino kid and the best Chinese chef in the tri-state area. Fun’s name is pronounced with a long oo, but according to Lady Meng, he lived
up to the American pronunciation quite admirably.
“My name is Mei,” she insisted, plucking at the sleeve of my jacket as we descended down into the dark restaurant. “You address me as if I’m a character from the Clue board game.”
I grinned at that and decided I really liked the old broad. “Sorry, Mei. You
just look old enough to be my great-grandmother, and my great old granny
always taught me to show respect for those who have a lot more wisdom than I.”
Mei smiled and nodded as she tottered along at my side. I’m six foot three.
She could pass for my daughter in the darkness.
“I’m sorry to bother you so late and all like this-”
“No, no,” she insisted graciously, unlocking a wall that slid open to reveal an otherwise hidden banquet room. “I’ve been waiting to get rid of this thing for eternity anyway. It’s high time somebody did something about it.”
“You’re a medium?” I asked her.
“I keep the old family traditions. We still speak to our ancestors regularly,
“I’m really not all that aware of any Asian practices regarding spirits.” We
stopped before a large tapestry showing huge, armored, angry-looking guys in
chariots drawn by fleet, plump, toothpick legged horses. “Is he bound to the tapestry?”
She seemed surprised. “You’ve never actually encountered a ghost before, have you, young man?”
I shrugged. “No. Never seen one. Don’t believe in ‘em.”
“And yet you are here,” she said, lifting an edge of the heavy fabric for me to hold while she scrabbled at the lock to a set of large, plain, wooden
I didn’t know what to expect. The only ghosts I’ve ever seen have been in
movies or cartoons from when I was just a sprout. Sure, everyone had heard of
ghost fighting, but the bulk of us thought it was some huge joke or maybe old ladies gathering together and smokin’ a bad batch of wacky weed or somethin’. The doors opened into a room so decidedly cooler than the rest of the
establishment, that I found myself shrugging a little deeper into the
lightweight jacket I wore. Mei Meng found a lightswitch and the lights were
slow to come on, beginning as a dull blue grey glow which gradually became
brighter and more yellow. The walls were bare, no windows could be seen. The
place smelled dusty and unused while a handful of old boxes lay scattered
about with permanent marker kanji legends, and stacks of extra chairs and a few folding tables for the banquet room sat quietly beneath a thin layer of
fine grey debris.
Senses on high, I stepped cautiously around holiday ornaments and a pile of
stainless steel chafing dishes as I glanced around.
Mei laughed. “He won’t pop out at you. You have to let him know he’s wanted,
and then tell him what to do.”
I said, incredulously, “Then...they’re just like servants or something for
“No. But their will is not as free as ours is, and we can promise them release
in exchange for a few favors.”
I asked her, “Why did you ever summon him?”
“Because ghost fighting is a dirty and dishonorable sport and I wanted to put
an end to it once and for all.”
“So...you summoned a demon?”
“He is not a demon. I do not think there is such a thing. He was a warrior. He was a samurai.”
“Samurai,” I repeated, still expecting to be ambushed. “Isn’t that...aren’t
“He trapped my grandfather when I was just a little girl. He had been summoned
to guard a great treasure in a hidden cave along the cliffs of an ocean. Every
five hundred years, an exceptionally low tide would reveal the cave, and then
anyone unwary could be lured within. My grandfather was a poor man, and he
searched the beaches for shipwreck treasure. When he saw the cave he had never been in before, of course he wanted to see what was inside it. He found the samurai living inside it, and this warrior drew his sword and made my
grandfather take a test. If he answered correctly, the samurai would let him
out again safely before the tides would once more rise. If not...well, I can
tell you that he never got the answers right.”
I was caught in a half-smirk. “Then how do you know about any of this at all?”
She shrugged. “Because I still talk to my ancestors.”
From my left, a cold chill drifted across me, and I looked towards its source and saw nothing.
“You are sensitive to them.”
“I’m not a sensitive,” I protested. Fairy stories only belonged in children’s books, a state law against ghost fighting be damned. “So what the hell’s this thing supposed to be? Your grandfather, or the samurai?”
“Because they were bound together, I was able to summon the samurai. His cave
won’t be revealed again for another three hundred and some years anyhow, so
it’s not like he’s needed elsewhere.”
She was serious. I was getting really irritated with this nonsense.
“So where is he?”
She said, “That was him. You felt it. He came to you.”
“O-kayy...so then, what the hell is ghost fighting all about? Little old
ladies with ouija boards and the thermostat cranked up high?”
The tiny, elderly woman uttered a sharp command in Chinese and punctuated it
with a clap of her withered, branch-like hands. Abruptly, the lights became
abnormally bright and a sudden wind whipped small objects through the air
around us, buffeting me, but leaving her serene and unscathed. I writhed for
just a moment, trying to keep my jacket on and protect myself from flying
decorative paper lanterns and tiny, airborne, tasseled windchimes. The
maelstrom lasted all of maybe fifteen seconds. The lights dimmed and I stood
hunched, wide-eyed, running a hand through my newly disheveled hair. With a
weak effort to seem unfazed, I joked, “Oh--you summoned a really good hair and clothes dryer.”
Mei ignored me. She reached toward me, but I drew away involuntarily. “It has
been too long that your bloodline has lost contact with its ancestors, but you
are ready now, I think. I can get you the addresses of those I’ve heard still
violate the law, and you may use him to help you free the souls of those who
are now bound to the dishonest. He will serve you well.”
I stammered, “What the hell is that supposed to mean? I can use him? He will
As she reached to turn the lights back off again, Mei Meng told me simply, “As
I said, I’ve been waiting to get rid of him for quite some time now.”
* * *
I didn’t even get any of the pizza on my way out with Mei Meng’s list. Because
the incident at her place had left me sober and even a little flighty, I
decided to go ahead and check out the addresses just to make sure everything
and everyone was still where she’d said they would be. The first set of
numbers lead me to one of the better planned communities on the outskirts of
town. I was surprised to pull up behind a beat-up van a good four houses away
from the one blasting Godsmack at ear-bursting decibels. The revelers I caught
site of looked college aged, and I’m a thirty-something who can occasionally
pass for ten years younger, so I checked the hair one more time in the
driver’s side mirror of the cab, paid my driver, and gave him extra to make
sure he’d sit and wait for me.
“Bring me food,” he told me as I walked away, hunched into my jacket.
“And a woman,” he added, as a curvy, petite strawberry blonde staggered out of the bushes I was approaching, trying to hook her bra back on, giggling just
before she threw up.
I kept walking.
The kids were actually even younger than I’d estimated, but a few strangers
looked as old as thirty, but acted less like chaperones and more like hopefuls
trying to see how drunk they could get the most attractive females. Nobody
questioned my entrance through the wide-open door. A brunette in a tiny red
shirt and low-cut white jeans even handed me a Heiney as she rounded a
staircase. I’m a Lowenbrau guy myself, but I figured Sharon would have drunk
my refrigerator dry while she was hauling her stuff out. Her and
whatsisname...that prissy trainer from the gym with the home perm. Brad.
A blonde bumped into me as she danced on a coffee table, then smiled and
intentionally fell against me so I’d catch her. “I’m Jessie!” she blurted
happily from between white teeth in a very tan face.
I’d already forgotten the name of the person I was here to see on the slip of
paper stuffed into my jacket pocket. The music was loud. I tried, “I’m
Brendan, Jenjen’s cousin.”
Of course, she was drunk, and couldn’t hear me well despite how close we were.
I set her down gingerly and the minute her platform-soled shoes touched floor
she was bopping again. “Who’s cousin? Jenna’s?”
I nodded. “Where is she? I need money to get us some more beer.”
“Did you say Wren or Jenny?”
I just nodded, bouncing along in my version of a goober’s two-step.
“Uh, she’s upstairs. I think. Did you say beer?”
I nodded again and started moving away.
“Couldja get us some fucking Coors Light?” The attractive, sunshiny girl
There were kids sitting on the stairs, standing on the stairs, some of them
placing bets on plastic Slinky races. A Slinky misstepped onto my left shoe,
and I skedaddled before too much attention was thrown my way.
Upstairs, the noise from below was filtered down into a sort of continuous
throbbing base and dull roar. The kids up here looked like the dorky ones I
remembered from school. The girls layered in black or burgundy or hunter
green. The boys in denim and lightweight jackets smoking clove cigarettes, murmuring amongst themselves of why the girls were so weird, yet so damn attractive to them. The loners, the losers, the secretive kids who turned to vampires and the occult as a means of seeking coolness. The ones you thought most likely to commit suicide until some perky cheerleader or star football player did it. I could smell incense and lotion and hairspray and perfume. The
half-crumpled note in my pocket told me it was Wren Wainer I wanted. Bad name.
No doubt her parents had found tie-dye the coolest thing ever back in the
A bedroom done much more nicely than I would’ve figured emitted a soft yellow
glow that flickered in time with laughter. I pushed past two fat girls
whispering at the door and discovered the rude seance. Soft Alternative music
tried to peep above the din from below. A tray of candles sat atop a low
Shaker-style table surrounded by pretty little things dressed mainly in
variations of black. A pentacle had been done on the table in salt. A chunky
girl with artificial yellow streaks in her otherwise chestnut hair was
reshuffling a deck of what I knew would turn out to be tarot cards. As though
sensing me, she turned suddenly, and smiled, staring. I lifted an eyebrow and
gestured toward the deck. “Wanna do me?”
As I winced at my poor choice of words, the other girls laughed and choked and
the chunky girl only nodded. She shushed them and gestured for me to stay
where I was, halfway within the room, standing by the foot of her bed. Her
head tilted and she gazed askance at nothing before telling me, “You weren’t
invited here...and yet you know me.”
“Really?” I said vaguely, unimpressed.
“You...do delivery work of some kind.”
She could probably still catch a whiff of garlic from my clothes.
Wren set down a card and studied it thoughtfully. “You have something to do
with the law?”
“I didn’t come for a reading.”
“What are you here for?” She pulled the next card and set it slightly
overlapping the first one. I could make out a cemetery on it.
“Somebody told me you’re a pretty good summoner.”
She stiffened and the girls around us stopped whispering. “I can channel my
older sister. She died in a car crash last summer.”
“You’re full of shit.”
The next card was a pale, hooded figure atop a large white horse.
Wren glanced thoughtfully around the room at her other visitors. “Anybody
wanna go see a ghost fight?”
“What’s a ghost fight?” someone asked, and the other girls gasped and started
chattering excitedly again.
* * *
She was twenty-two, though I’d pegged her for seventeen. She had us all pile
into her convertible, me with a pudgy olive-skinned chick of dubious age
bouncing too much as she sat on my lap. There were six of us besides Wren
herself, including a skinny, dark-haired kid named Blaine who couldn’t seem to remain conscious for too long at a stretch.
Wren drove us back to Beantown, and we headed deep into a seedier part of the
city where representatives from the Board of Health refused to tread, and you could find the best grinders dripping grease in nearly any back alley
converted into a tiny, standing-room-only sandwich shop. Most of the
passengers quieted considerably as we rode amidst old, decaying buildings
decked out liberally in spray paint. Only the black-haired chick in the front
beside Wren seemed to have any idea where she was taking us.
I had to show ID at a letterbox door placed high at the entrance to a
deserted-looking place with a canvas sign proclaiming it The 4:16. It was just my Massachusetts driver’s license and not anything which might give my
profession away. Everyone got in except Blaine, who remained asleep in the car
parked two blocks away. The little Indian girl who fancied me clutched at my right arm in an annoying way. I shrugged her off and darted through a door labeled Shithole in green glitter-glue.
I felt uncomfortable here in a way I could not explain. Damp with
perspiration, I ached to peel off at least half of my clothes and do a
cannonball into the nearest oily puddle. Instead, I splashed my face with
tea-colored trickle from a corroded spigot that dripped anyway, and tried to
check my features in a mirror badly in need of resilvering and maybe three
entire bottles of Windex. I was pasty. Greyish. The whites of my eyes looked
yellow in the dusty, yellowish light. My tongue felt coated. My stomach
couldn’t decide if it would be happier emptied or full.
By the time I exited, my entourage had already wandered off, as I’d hoped they
might. The 4:16 wasn’t listed on my brief note done in shaky ball-point, but I somehow knew I was at the right place at just the right time.
The crowd was mixed and surprisingly sparse, lining a balcony which surrounded a lower, warehouse-like level cut with structure-supporting pillars and old metal storage racks, with one spotlight-picked out cardtable set up in the center for everyone to watch. As I started making my way slowly along the nearest wall, seeking steps leading down, a tall woman in a black-fringed outfit that showed off her lean midsection strolled purposely into view and settled down at one of the chairs drawn up to the lit table. Calmly, she withdrew a cigarette from a beaded, fringed purse and ignited it with a laser-style lighter. Everyone drew closer to the metal rails to watch her lean back and blow bluish smoke into the air. Far above us, a centered, mirrored ball turned slightly, casting a handful of blurs of light along the watchers. I could see other things rigged up there in the darkness...lights, cables, and
who knew what else. Finally, the tall figure lifted a finger and pointed its
scarlet painted tip up at the balcony right before her. She turned slightly as
she allowed her finger to travel, finally stopping almost directly upon me. I inhaled sharply until another woman beside me clapped and squealed
delightedly, then hurried off toward the metal stairs I’d been seeking.
Onlookers murmured until the chosen one stepped within the light and everyone
who recognized her began to encourage her by chanting softly, “Opal...Opal...”
Opal Longstein was one of the names on my list. No address given.
When the first figure spoke, I abruptly realized it was a man. No men’s names
had been given to me, but then, maybe he didn’t go by a masculine moniker.
Opal sat at the chair facing him, removed a cone of incense from her own white leather purse and placed it between them on a small, ceramic trivet. When she failed to turn up matches, the man in beaded black obliged with a smirk, and the cone flared beneath the lighter’s touch before Opal blew on the flame,
allowing the stuff to smoke slowly. Everything went silent.
It seemed to take some time before I noticed the lights were brightening
around us. The beaded man glanced up, took a drag of his cigarette, then
abruptly slapped the tabletop, scaring everyone, and every light went black.
I could hear my breathing in the darkness and the rustling of the figures
nearest me. If I squinted, I could make out a soft blue-white glow beginning
just above where I thought the table should be. I saw the sudden brightening
of the red end of bead man’s cigarette. A cool chill overcame me and I gagged
slightly, still somewhat nauseous. I shuddered.
The mirrored ball suddenly exploded into brightness, nearly blinding everyone with dizzying flashes, but what light source caused the numerous reflections was unknown to us. The lightshow lost intensity and we could hear a man’s voice as he chuckled. “Lights, please,” he commanded, and somebody finally got
the main spot back on. Opal had already risen and left her chair, head hung in
“What the hell?” I muttered, wiping sweat from my cheek. Is that all ghost
fighting was? A tiny telekinetic lightshow?
I wasn’t taking things well, so I moved swiftly back toward the exit while I
could still see it. Something was crawling down the back of my shirt, and I swatted it, but it was only a bead of sweat racing down the slope of my neck.
The air outside was foul, but fresher than what I’d been breathing in the old
warehouse. Some incense gives me violent headaches. I don’t care for cigarette smoke at all. A light mist began to fall, and I felt refreshed, but was famished. I hadn’t eaten since that tuna sub nearly twelve hours earlier, so maybe my problem was just that my blood sugar was low. At the end of the block I found a small noodle bar and dropped onto a stool to order some beef ramen. The near-midget sized Asian who studied me from behind thick glasses scowled before moving to fill my request, acting like I’d farted egg salad in his airspace. I was already feeling better, so I ignored him, trying to figure out what it was I’d just witnessed.
“You eat, you go,” the old toad insisted, slapping a carton overloaded with slick noodles in front of me, chopsticks jammed in through the top. I glared back at him and shoveled noodles into myself with the fingers of my right
hand. He pushed a 12 oz. can of Pepsi toward me. I ate and stared, daring him
to say anything else rude to me. “I no like you brew-haha crazy people. You
with the demons around you.”
“Hwo-whad?” I choked around a mouthful of tentacle-like pasta. I bit, chewed
maybe once, gulped hard. “The what?”
He indicated an area surrounding me like a glow. “You and your demons don’t
come back here no more.”
“I’ll leave ya a big tip,” I promised, opening my wallet for him. “What the
hell is it you think you see around me, Dim Sum?”
He ignored my jibe and shook his head no. “I don’t see nothing. I don’t say
nothing. You eat, you pay, you go, brew-haha. You no come ‘round here no
more.” With that, he grabbed for the fiver I’d withdrawn, stuffed it into a
pocket of his stained apron, then made a face and lifted bent index fingers
near his temples like horns. A lightbulb directly above him popped, and he jumped, barking out a sharp yip of surprise before retreating through a narrow door behind his gas brazier.
* * *
I was making my way back toward the old building, chugging my sweet cola,
wiping the greasy fingers of my right hand against the thigh of my Dockers
when a dull thud caught my attention and a rain of silver tinkled down where
most of the upper windows had just been. Excited, I raced back to the door and found it slightly ajar, no one checking IDs anymore behind it. Strange balls and streaks of colored light were racing through the place like frightened
birds, and I looked up, expecting the lighting equipment to be in full swing,
but nothing was moving and the mirrored disco ball had shattered. To my
astonishment, Wren stood between her chair and the table, facing bead guy, who trembled a little as he smoked, and a strange, dark mist seemed to rise off of him and dissipate quickly like he was sweating a black steam. The faces around me leaned far over the painted metal rail and smiled in delight and wonder and even a touch of fear. This was what they had really hoped to see then, proof of ghosts, life after death, or at least some well orchestrated trickery.
Wren extended her arms to her sides and turned slowly until she rose perhaps a
foot from the floor and hung momentarily in mid air. Bead Guy tossed his nearly spent cigarette to the floor and stalked off, aware he’d been soundly
defeated. Miss Wainer stepped up onto the seat of her chair and from there to
the center of the round table to cheers and applause. Her little friends from
the party descended the metal stirs swiftly to gather near her and exclaim and strut around her for the benefit of any hunky guys who might be watching them from the balcony.
Tuns out there was one such kid impressed enough to descend slowly and
approach them. The girls quieted as they watched the stranger, a kid who
looked almost repellantly scrawny, chinless, with blow-dried blond hair, a
beige jacket loose upon his bony frame, white T-shirt sunken where his chest
should have been, denim pooled absurdly around his scuffed brown leather boots
as it hung from the belt which alone kept it from completely succumbing to
A woman near me turned away from the sight, burying her face against the
nearest man’s shoulder. “I don’t like this,” I heard her muttering. “These
kids prefer the violence of it. They don’t do it like our parents did back in
He looked maybe fifteen, a hint of blonde stubble shading his tapered jaw.
Hands in his pockets, he glanced at Wren’s friends, and they uttered syllables of fear and awe as they suddenly slid away from the table, their feet not moving. The kid continued to approach Wren, who I distinctly sensed was outclassed and a bit worried about it. Murmurings continued softly from the balcony. One couple hurried out into the cool mist rain.
I felt my body hair rise.
The newcomer’s tricks began so abruptly, I don’t think any of us even realized it at first. It was like a tiny tornado had been set loose in the center of the building, with anything portable suddenly whizzing around the two and the table. Wren looked upward and a set of ceiling-mounted lights exploded into full illumination, but then the boy’s gaze found them and their lenses exploded into a fine, sparkly mist. Wren shielded her eyes and we could see her tense, hear her start some chant I assumed she’d made up. The table tilted beneath her and she slid off onto her ass. The whirlwind decelerated for just a moment, and then she glanced up fiercely and her opponent’s shirt and jacket blew up around his head.
Until this moment, everything had seemed mainly entertaining in a really
freaky way. Now the boy struggled out of his clothes and stormed toward her
and Wren reached out as she struggled to her feet, beckoning to the dark
haired girl who’d ridden beside her in the car. Her friend’s eyes closed and
she pointed her extended hands back at Wren, and Miss Wainer seemed to gain
strength from the maneuver, which she sent barreling back at the scrawny boy
in the form of a visible, cold mist.
He snorted laughter and swatted at the vapors. Wren looked back at her friend
and now the second girl came up to her side and they held hands, staring back
at the boy. I kept glancing around to see how the special effects were done,
wondering if there was some sort of potent hallucinogenic in the incense the
first woman had burned. The toppled table swung up onto an edge and rotated
slowly. The girls’ expressions were of the most grim determination as they
plotted their coup de grace. I watched them hunch simultaneously, and the
table began to roll toward the thin kid, who literally waved it off with a
loose-wristed gesture of disdain. What I saw next sickened me. The repelled
table turned in mid-air and struck the two girls full-force with its flat top,
sweeping them out of sight beneath the balcony I stood on. A handful of
onlookers cried out in horror, I caught the word “illegal” being thrown
around, three different women scrambled to punch 911 into their cellphones.
So that’s what had brought the silly parlor game of playing seance down around the heads of the elderly women who had sought the reassurance of existence in some form after death twenty years ago. Experimentations with summonings and channelings had begun producing astonishing results for some who then felt the urge to show off their alleged skills in front of other powerful mediums. Ghost exploitation in the worst kind of sense. Until tonight, I was pretty certain there’d never been any recorded incidents of violence this critical being caused to any living beings by mere ghosts. I could easily see how this sick practice would soon be used to commit murder and other crimes.
Red and blue light made its way into the building as police cars started
pulling up outside. People fled like rats from a ship, and I took the metal
stairs three at a time in my effort to apprehend the teenaged scarecrow.
Without evidence, the police could hardly ensure anyone would pay for what had occurred here. Ghost fighting was really just a misdemeanor with a night’s
stay in a jail cell involved, a psychiatric evaluation, and an ugly fine with a little exposure in the local papers. There was no proof ghosts even existed. The law was flawed by a phenomenon that allegedly could show no reproducible results in a laboratory setting. If I caught the kid, however, I could press charges myself, and with Lady Meng’s testimony and a display from her captive dead samurai, we could change everything and make sure nobody ever got hurt this badly again.
Of course, the kid ran. I hate it when they run. I don’t think he realized he
was being followed as I tailed him through an old, trashed office and out a
side door into an alleyway. Plenty of people were still fleeing the scene. I
could hear him laughing ahead of me, delighted by what he had done. He didn’t
get too far--just turned a corner, scooted sideways through a particularly
narrow corridor, knocked over a trash can in his haste, then raced up the
gangplank of a small, docked freighter.
I paused at the edge of the alley, gave my breathing time to slow, watched the
ship for signs of life and saw only a lit section from which came the muffled
sounds of a TV program between soft laps of waves against the ship. She was
dull and old and grey and her name was the Anna B. I got the impression she
didn’t actually go out to sea too much anymore and was used as a floating
headquarters or hangout of some sort instead. When I felt comfortable enough
to step out where I might be seen, I saw a set of numbers painted onto the
concrete and my memory was jogged. Anna B., 68292 Dockyard was written in Mei
Meng’s scrawl and underlined. It was the last item on the brief list she’d
given me. The extra line of wavering ink made me wonder if I might want to
come back later with Darren as my backup.
A cold wind blew up the alley and buffeted me. I turned around in irritation, no longer able to discern a simple breeze from an alleged ghost. When I glanced back toward the ship, a silhouette froze, then hurried off toward parts unknown and I knew I might as well get going before the thing set sail for Singapore or something and my good night’s hunting went sour.
I still didn’t actually believe in ghosts. I’d never seen one, though I’d
heard plenty of stories about ‘em from older folk and friends as a kid, often
figuring out the real cause of whatever had scared these people as I allowed
them to continue telling their stories wide-eyed and sincere. Marsh gas still
haunted a few people, homes settling could account for some of the phenomena,
house pets, playful siblings, dreams confused with reality. I once saw a beer
move away from my hand after I’d grabbed for it three times to discover a
cushion of wetness beneath it was enough to make it dodge displaced air when I’d made any motions toward it. A strange, faint glow used to greet me
whenever I’d entered my bedroom at night in darkness, zipping around and then eventually vanishing until I realized it was just the face of my watch reflecting a bit of streetlight until I laid down. I was once startled silly by a loud, deep voice calling my name very clearly, but drawing out each
syllable in the middle of the night. Turned out to be air in the old
building’s pipes and the rest of the sounds it made were completely
unintelligible. I’ve got bills to worry about, relationships to try and forget
about, an old back injury that acts up every now and then...who the hell has
time to be scared of ghosts and other things that go bump in the night
I prowled about, finding doors rusted or locked tight, trying to peer through
grimy old windows. The room with the TV just held a table and a snack machine.
I could smell fresh cigarette smoke within it, but no other signs of recent
occupation. No spider-sense tingled to alert me to any dangers, nothing
started rapping in Morse code, no whispered warnings were heard in my head. I already knew I was in considerable danger after what I’d witnessed back at The 4:16. I found a double set of doors open with a brief entranceway between ‘em, saw stairs leading down into a lantern lit hold, then was seized by someone small enough to hide within the short span of shadows and pitch me down a good
ten feet where I lay for a moment, waiting for the pain to catch up with me, one ankle caught on the rung-like steps rising behind me.
There were others in the ship’s hold, seated on boxes or barrels in
half-shadow, but the person who caught my attention was a huge, portly African
woman in a brightly colored muumuu with a matching bandanna tied securely
about her head.
I hurt. Bad. You stop being able to take falls really well at about the age of eighteen. It took some effort to work a hand beneath my chest and push upward. I exhaled a gust of agony, remained there while I drew my other arm in place, then slowly brought my legs around and worked myself upright again.
The woman could have been eighteen herself...or she could have been closer to fifty. Skin as taught and dark as an eggplant, she was fleshy and ageless,
with huge, round black-coffee eyes that showed far too much white like she was
permanently terrified or enraged. She was working cards, too, but with much
more authority than little pale Wren could have mustered. Candles dripped into deformities atop skulls and blocks of wood around her. I nearly gagged on what I recognized as the armpit-like stench of Nag Champa in an off-brand,
smoldering atop a charcoal tablet in a huge shell dish before her. Small bones
frayed with dried meat scraps littered the floor. As I approached, she seized
a canary from a tiny rattan cage and slit its throat, allowing what liquid
would spill out to dot the card spread before her.
“Secret Asian Man,” I thought she said, though she may have been requesting
the old hit Secret Agent Man from one of the scrudgy looking types around her.
I paused within ten feet, but refused to move any closer. Her look and
paraphernalia made me think she might be some Voodoo queen. Then again, it
might just be all theatrics.
“I am what you’re lookin’ for,” she said in her very deep voice, speaking to
me though it looked like she was addressing the cards. I tilted my head and leaned forward enough to see her deck was completely blank. I shivered
“Tonight you will die,” she announced calmly, using the same small blade she’d
cut the bird’s throat with to halve a fig and eat it. “And then I will use
you. You will be under my control.”
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” I told her.
She glanced directly at me for the first time. “But, you are a ghost. A ghost that haunts meat until it stops moving and spoils.”
“I just came for the kid. That scrawny-assed kid with no chin who came in
here. He hurt two girls tonight.”
She said, considering the remaining half of her fig, “He killed them for me.
They all will come to me and all of them will die. I let them have their fun
first, practice their skills, and then I take them as my own ghosts and the
ghosts they’ve summoned with them. The ones who understand the process have
greater ability once they’ve made the Other Side. You will, too...but only
because you’ve spent your life as a servant of the living anyway.”
“I charge a fee,” I informed her--another weak attempt at humor.
She stabbed the blade into the tabletop and squashed the fig half beneath one
pudgy hand as she rose. She wasn’t as tall as I’d thought she was, but every
bit as fat. “Then let’s negotiate.”
I stilled myself, tensed myself, forced myself to remain in place as she
rolled back those huge eyes and closed them, then inhaled a mighty breath.
Around us, her followers or whatever they were turned away and faced the walls while a scant handful made for the ladder stairs and scrambled quickly away. I could smell something burnt and charring. My clothes felt strangely clingy and I realized I was being enveloped in static. The woman seemed to grow even fatter somehow as she threw her head back and issued a yowling, unholy groan. Her arms rose to either side, fingers spreading, and her feet rose a good six inches or so off the floor.
An unnatural wind beat against me and weird items were scattered from her
table. A few more men ran for the stairs, and I caught sight of the scrawny kid as he reached to close the door and seal the rest of us within. The air crackled and blue light flickered weirdly off of and around the rotund woman. Her eyes opened wide, but remained rolled back in her head, and the remaining stragglers around us crouched behind their boxes and barrels, still turned toward the curved inner walls of the ship.
I inhaled, remained straight, and waited.
Eventually, the woman relaxed, and when her eyes rolled down and saw me, I
watched her face contort into anxious perplexity.
She tried again, rising maybe three inches upward, glowing a gentle white you might miss if you weren’t watching for it, and a single bloodspattered card
was disturbed from where it perched on the edge of the table and drifted
downward. Panicked, she lunged at me and I dodged backward, but all she did
was waggle her fingertips at me and issue loud noises in some foreign tongue. Nothing happened, and I had to stifle a snicker. Real fear gripped her, she gazed at her black fingertips, glanced wildly about the room, then shrieked a terrible and ear- splitting, “NNNNNOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
An uproar erupted and boxes were flung at me, empty barrels came flying as the
oddballs who’d waited, cowering through the rather anticlimactic ordeal,
sought to keep me from pursuing them up the stair ladder to what I guessed was
the only way out. Nothing struck me, and I was actually a bit baffled by the
entire event, so I remained in place, observing the frantic goings-on for
several moments before I grew bored and headed for the steps myself.
Men leaped from my path like startled frogs, landing badly and hitting each
other. The huge, black-skinned woman had fainted, and a few of her associates
tripped over her large, jiggly form. As I ascended, the door above me swung
open partially as though it had never latched tight to begin with, and I
exited easily, listening to splashes as some of the other creeps aboard the
ship rather hastily abandoned it.
The kid was smoking a cigarette in the room with the TV and broken snack
machine. The rolled stick of tobacco fell from his lips as I entered the room, and he nearly brained himself running into the doorframe as he attempted to escape around me. I hefted his loose form by the back of his collar, then dragged him triumphantly down the gangplank. I considered tossing him down into the oily black water, but that was cruel and unusual and not the legal way to do things.
There were still cops and two ambulances surrounding the old warehouse known briefly as The 4:16. I identified myself, replied to a few questions vaguely, and turned the kid over to them, agreeing to act as a witness.
A redheaded guy I knew of took me aside and muttered, “Y’know, Pete...this
isn’t gonna stick. If he didn’t touch the table, it won’t have fingerprints on
it, and nobody believes in ghosts at all.”
I nodded in agreement as I watched his fellow officers load the punk in the
back of a car. “Just do what you can. When he gets out tomorrow, give me a
call at the office and I’ll keep an eye on him and his gang. I think this
bullshit’s only gonna get worse unless someone can prove something concrete
once and for all.”
“Do you believe in ghosts?” he asked me.
I shrugged and removed a stick of Beeman’s gum from an inner jacket pocket. “I’ll let ya know something. I might have a way to get this kid locked up forever. I’ll get back to ya. Hold his ass as long as you possibly can.”
* * *
Meng’s Dynasty had been consumed by fire that night. While no bodies were
found, nobody was found, either. I have no idea what might’ve happened to
little Mei and her small harem of young, athletic men, but I get a good
feeling when I think of her, so I like to assume that means she’s all right
Scarecrow wound up at Amherst Asylum with his own room overlooking the
barbed-wire fence and a monogrammed straight jacket to greet guests in. He
kept claiming he could make things fly and kill people just by willing it, and
all his new companions made him use the iron when they played Monopoly
together in the rec room.
Sharon was waiting for me when I finally made it back to my apartment. She ran to me in tears through the debris she’d created during the rage that had consumed her while trying to decide what was hers to take and what was mine to destroy. Her behavior had completely turned off Bradly the fitness trainer, whom she now suspected was gay anyway. I pushed her away and demanded a beer. When she couldn’t find one in the ‘fridge for me, stuff in the apartment began to fly around like a maelstrom, lights flickering, windows and doors slamming open and closed, and she fled into the early dawn, never to be seen by me again.
No incantations had been spoken and no spells cast, but I now know who my
benefactor is and that I’ll probably be stuck with him for the next three
hundred years. I don’t know how it happened or why, but I suspect the poor
dead guy just gets really bored hanging around in his fabled cave somewhere,
waiting for the tide to drop and unsuspecting visitors to permanently drop in. I promise him nothing and he leaves me alone, though since he joined the team, Darren’s been a hell of a lot nicer to me, and I seem to have no trouble at all rounding up perpetrators when I go out on the occasional non-ghost related case.
I found out the weird woman from the Anna B. was called Barbarossa, and hailed from an allegedly powerful Voodoo family in the south. No one knows what happened to her after the night we met, but all reports of ghost fighting have since vanished from the Beantown area, so I’m thinkin’ of maybe headin’ down toward New Orleans and opening up my own practice down there. Wing Pete, Private Eye, Spiritual Concerns A Specialty. I’ve got time to kill and a samurai on my side, so why not? When I consulted my ancestors, they really seemed to like the idea.
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|Reviewed by Lee Garrett
|You definitely have a gift for cross-genre writing. I enjoyed this very original story tremendously. Thanks for sharing.|