15 December 2006
It was a couple days before I heard from Matteson, but once I did, we were able to arrange a time for him to come by and check the place out. I don’t know exactly what I expected, honestly. Based on Rick, and what little I had learned about his friends, I guess there was a part of me that suspected I’d open the door to find some guy with dyed hair and a coat with holes in it, carrying around some kind of device from one of those ghost hunter shows and talking about weird conspiracies. The person who showed up on my porch, however, was a broad-shouldered black man wearing a black wide-brimmed hat, a dark long coat, a white button-down shirt, and gray slacks. About the only thing I saw that seemed to fit what my head had drawn up in advance was the smell of cigarette smoke. I was certainly not expecting him to be attractive.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said, because he was late, by about twenty minutes. “Your police seem to think only white people come here.”
“Well, you know, near as I can tell, that’s probably accurate.” I offered him a handshake and he accepted, and then I stepped aside and invited him in. He entered, scanning the room with eyes that seemed sharp but tired, like they’d seen too much to risk missing things now. He carried himself like a professional, stern and without any slouch, and stopped just inside the door to check if he should remove his shoes. I told him not to, and he seemed only slightly bothered by that, but wiped his boots and finished entering all the same. “Should, um…would you like a drink?”
“Oh, uh, sure. What do you have?”
“Coffee, tea, water, probably some milk.” He smiled and requested a tea, and I slipped off to the kitchen to get that going. I had received some new coffee maker thing with little disposable cups as a housewarming present, so I quickly made a cup of tea for him and a cup of coffee for me as I rehearsed in my head how to explain to him what was happening and not stare. God, I couldn’t stare. Would he know it was because I liked his look? Would he think I was freaked out by his skin? I had to imagine either option would make him uncomfortable. “Come on, Alice,” I whispered to myself, “you hired him to do a job, just let him do it.” Wait, money. We never talked about money. I had no idea how much I was supposed to be paying him! I called out asking if he wanted cream or sugar, and he said sugar would be nice, so I put the mugs and some sugar on a platter and carried them over to the dining room. When I looked on my way by, I saw he was standing right where I had left him, though he now had his jacket off and folded over his arm. His much more muscular than I expected arm. I called him in, and he followed to the table, laying his jacket across the back of his chair.
“Do you usually offer hirelings tea?” he asked. I laughed a bit nervously.
“Do you usually accept tea?” He smiled and put some sugar in his mug as he sat down.
“Full disclosure, Miss Templeton—”
“Call me Alice.”
“Right. Fact is, I’ve never done this before. Not officially, anyway. I mean, I work with an investigation firm, but I’m not exactly in the field usually, and we don’t deal with ghosts.” I sat down opposite him, realized I hadn’t put any creamer in my coffee yet, and ran off to the kitchen to grab it.
“What do you do there, then?” I asked as I returned.
“Mostly paperwork, looking stuff up online, that sort of thing. Really, the job is mostly tracking people down for debt collectors and the occasional person looking for dirt to use in a divorce hearing, anyway.”
“I always thought it was a bit more, I dunno, active than that.”
“So did I. And maybe it was, once. But I’m told this is pretty common across the industry.”
“Would you rather be doing stuff like this?” He smirked.
“Do you mean having tea with pretty brunettes, or investigating ghosts?” I barely stopped myself from choking on my coffee.
“Ah, um…well, I—”
“Sorry, that was probably—”
“No, no, it’s fine. You’re fine. Really. I meant the ghost thing, though. Maybe we could…talk about the other one some other time.” He chuckled and looked around, as if hoping the answer to my question was on the wall somewhere.
“I dunno. I never thought about the idea that it could be a thing. I guess we’ll have to see how this case goes.” We were both silent for a little while, and then he smiled at me. “So. Mind if I look around a bit?”
“No, of course not, do, you know, whatever it is you do.” He nodded and stood, finishing his tea and setting the mug down before heading for the hall. “Do you need anything from me?”
“Don’t know yet,” he said, shoving his hands into his pockets and vanishing around the corner. I took a breath and finished my coffee before gathering everything up and taking it back to the kitchen. I saw him looking around at the base of the stairs as I passed, but he didn’t seem to be paying attention to me. I put the dishes into the dishwasher and the creamer back into the fridge as I heard him on the stairs. The cold from having the door open when he was coming in, and now the fridge, seemed to finally catch up with me, so I went into the living room to grab a knit shawl before going to look for him. Matteson was, by then, coming back down the stairs.
“Anything interesting?” He was frowning.
“Well, not really, but. Okay, let me explain.”
“In the living room? It’s more comfortable there.” He paused as if taking that in, and then nodded. I led the way and sat down on the couch, and he took the loveseat facing me. “So what do you mean by ‘not really?’”
“So the metaphysical realm is complicated, and malleable. The way people think about it seems to shape it. So while ghosts are real, and so are spirits, and I can see and interact with those, there are also…less real things in it.”
“If they’re not real, how are they there?”
“Well, it’s not that they’re not real, exactly. Just that they’re not real ghosts or spirits. I call them echoes, they’re like…memories, or something, embedded in the fabric of the metaphysical realm, that flare up occasionally. Like, maybe something very important happened, and even though the ghosts of the people involved have already moved on, that embedded memory still flashes now and then and seems like a ghost.”
“And you think that’s what’s happening here?”
“I think it’s a very real possibility. Any ghost or spirit that was close enough to the physical world to draw your attention would be close enough for me to see, and I just didn’t find any trace of that.”
“The alternative is?”
“The alternative, as far as I know, is that what you encountered was either a spell made to look like a ghost that accidentally got dispelled when I got too close to it, or wasn’t supernatural at all.”
“Do you just, normally dispel things by accident?”
“Oh.” We sat for a second as I thought through what he was saying. “Okay, so, let’s say it’s the echo thing. Do you have a way to test that?”
“I might. I’ve been reading a bit about this, and I think there’s something I can do, but I’ve never tried it before.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“I have no idea.”
“If it is dangerous, what would happen?” He took a sharp breath through his nose and leaned back, crossing his arms and thinking.
“Well, I suppose, the most likely bad thing would be drawing the attention of local spirits. Which, I mean, the danger of that really depends on what spirits you have kicking around here. But unless they’re very monstrous, I could probably just wait around a bit until they show up and then ask them to leave.”
“Would they just leave?”
“I’d probably have to convince them, explain that it was an accident, but there’s like, I dunno, a 60% chance they wouldn’t keep bothering you?”
“Did you just make that number up?”
“Maybe.” I laughed, then stood.
“Okay, magic man. Let’s try this experimental ghost-calling thing.”
“I am absolutely not calling it that,” he said as he rose from the seat. I directed him to where the sound seemed to be coming from, and he closed his eyes and started to breathe very slowly and carefully. Slowly, his hands started to raise, until his palms were facing straight ahead, and then his fingers began to close. I started to hear whispers, a few different voices, but they were garbled and distant enough that I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I inched closer to Matteson until I felt myself press against him. The voices grew more clear and soon I could start making out forms, then faces. There was a woman, and a set of stairs that certainly didn’t belong to this house, and a man walking over from the stairs. I turned around and saw three more men, they were all yelling about something to do with the river and a curse. Matteson’s eyes were open now, wide open and his hands were shaking slightly. One of the men pulled a gun and fired a shot and I screamed, and then Matteson grabbed me and spun us both around. He was covering both of our eyes from seeing the men, but I could see the woman bleeding out on the floor and I started to freak out. Then I heard the scream, that scream I had already been hearing, but now it sounded real. It was loud, and close, and tinted with pain and rage and these terrible wet crunching noises. Matteson was muttering, and it took me a second to realize he was swearing under his breath.
“What’s going on? Do you know what this is?”
“Yes,” he said, quietly. He tilted his head to indicate the couple in front of us, the man now kneeling down to check on the woman. “These are my great-grandparents.”