Saturday, February 08, 2014

The Semi-Hidden Staircase

I hate haunted houses. I’m talking the real ones: houses no one lives in anymore, the kind they don’t offer ghost tours to, the ones so old and run down that even rats won’t live in them. They are the places locals talk about only after the pubs have closed, the tales never told to children and only mentioned when lights are bright and burning. It makes it harder to find out about them. It makes it harder to deal with them. And it also means that said places are going to be less comfortable than a 0-star motel run by Norman Bates.

Dyer had chatted with the locals in pubs while I’d broken into the towns records department for files. I’m trying not to think too hard about that division as I hop the fence around the property after the ghost. Obediah died in 1918, body thin and eaten away from the inside-out by sickness. Paler than death, with bones and veins standing out against flesh, a voice little more than a rasp and no hair at all – he looks like he should be dead or barely survived dying, and people talk to him, the way they talk to magicians, but without his using any magic at all. He’s also the only ghost I’ve run into that can be solid enough to fool most anyone into thinking he’s alive.

“The house was built in 1886 by one Jeremiah Baker, a banker by trade who amassed a small fortune and retired. According to a couple of microfilm reels, telling people no to their mortgages just got to be too much for him. No wife, no kids, died ten years later. House passed into the care of his younger sister, Jennifer. Her son, Alexander, killed himself two years later; she beat her husband and his mistress to death with her bare hands four months after that and threw herself off of the roof. Three stories, hit the ground and only broke her legs. Died in jail several years later; everyone else who tried to settle in the house left and refused to talk about why.”

“Huh.” Dyer studies the house. It isn’t much to speak of: old wood siding, crumbling brick, but the plans had shown fairy-tale like turrets and even a small moat complete with drawbridge leading into the home. Jeremiah had ever been – or decided to become – a local eccentric. Possibly for privacy. In its day it would have looked like Walt Disney had shat some princess castle right in the middle of Michigan.

“The locals fenced it off in the sixties after two more deaths,” he says. “Officially, they fell through the floor. Unofficially, they ran into at least one ghost and died trying to flee the house. Last month two local kids decided to explore it for a YouTube video. Neither has left their home or talked since, mostly making whimpering sounds and cowering from any kind of noise. That’s when someone sought out CASPER.”

The Centre for Secure Poltergeist Elimination Research is, at least on paper, some branch of the department of education dealing with hoaxes and telling people how ghosts are really animals, odd noises, weird sounds and the like. And to be fair, more than half of what we do is that. The rest is getting rid of real ghosts on a budget that makes welfare checks look like a windfall.

“You’re the ghost eater.” I give him a light push into the brambles. “Go inside, find ghost, eat it and we’re done.”

He shoots me a hurt look. “It’s not that simple. We don’t know how many ghosts there are or which ones are actually hurting people. The world has no shortage of weird creatures that might hide in this sort of place and scare kids by accident.”

I sigh and begin shoving brambles out of my way as I head toward the house. I could rip through them: I have a monster inside me, a thing of claw and shadow, a god forged of fear and flame, but the ghost might notice. And it seems kind of silly to to call up for brambles, but less so as Dyer just wanders through them, his already ripped leather jacket barely touched by them while my winter jacket gets ripped and torn up to match his. I’m in a mood by the time we reach the house.

“I should go first,” Dyer offers in his soft rasp as we reach what the perpetually open drawbridge leading into the old home. I turn and raise one eyebrow; he falls back a couple of steps and licks his lips.“Charlie, no one has lived here for close to a hundred years. The floors could well collapse –”

“They wouldn’t dare.”

Ghost-boy is good at sounding nice; I’m good at sounding like I’m a few seconds from doing something the other person is going to regret. He snaps his mouth shut and says nothing else as I head across the doorway and into the house. The walls are crumbling wood reeking of rot, the floor bowed and twisted as I walk in. Wood shudders a little but holds together; gaps oin the floor offer hints toward a finished basement below us. The stairwell up to the second level is a complete write-off for going up unless I was ten again. And dieting. Which sounds less funny in my head since I’d lay bets that there’s some ten year old girls who do diet these days.

The whole place feels not empty enough, as if the shadows were judging us, but I’m good at judging right back. I look about slowly, thinking. I’m not Dyer. He eats ghosts; I eat gods. And other things, if and when I have to. He’s concerned with stopping the ghost; I’m wondering who the ghost is and how they got this way. I gesture and he follows my lead, slipping up the stairs to the second level in silence as I look around.

Huge hallway, vast staircases to the second floor, drawing room, living room. The kitchen is is in the back, most of it having fallen through the floor, the stairway to the basement being far off to the side. In its day it would have been half-hidden by a stove or fridge, if I have the layout right. I move back to the stable flooring and crouch down, staring through the missing boards and holes. I draw on enough of the god inside me to see through shadow and move slowly along the floor, getting a feel for what the basement looks like.

“I think the kids got to the second floor and ran down,” Dyer says behind me. I don’t jump; I’m getting used to him not making a sound when he walks. “The servant stairwell leading to the kitchen is more solid than the main stairs; they tried to hit the back entrance, fell into the basement and scrambled back up through an exit that was probably storage for firewood.”

“I bet they broke the lock on their way out,” I say slowly as I stand. “And the door is shut tight now.”

He pauses at something in my voice but nods. “It looked like that; I didn’t want to test it alone.”

“Yeah. Drop down into the basement. Look around. Come back up. Don’t do it in the normal way.”

Dyer blinks, but doesn’t ask questions. He’s gone between one moment and the next, and beside me less than thirty seconds later, pale eyes wide in shock.

“Jeremiah Baker is down there, then.”

“His ghost is hiding, yes.” Dyer heads outside; I follow without a word, fighting back a grin. A hundred years dead and he looks so shocked it’s hard not to laugh. “You saw?” he says.

“Chains. Benches. Enough to know it was a dungeon, though most of it has rotted away with time. He lived alone and was wealthy: I imagine people into the S&M scene found out about his dungeon because he wanted them to. He was rich, so such things never made the papers then, and eventually someone tried to blackmail him. He kills himself and haunts it to hide his shame from his own family.”

“His shame became part of the house he built. Infected it. Drove his own nephew to suicide and his sister into madness. Their ghosts aren’t here. Just his and he’s too terrified and angry to talk, so afraid of being discovered that he terrifies people away from his own home.”

“And every piece that rots away increases the chances people will learn his secrets.”


I grunt and pull out a cigarette, lighting it. Like all bad habits, it’s one I can’t quite quit. This job doesn’t help. “How strong is Jeremiah?”

“I don’t know.”

I take a deep drag, blow smoke, a second, and thread power into my voice. “Ghost: I am giving you a way out. Use it,” and toss the cigarette through the open door onto the floor.

Dyer lets out a shocked yelp. “This isn’t how we do things!”

The fire catches in record time and begins burning bright and hot, enough to consume the house and not a single brush around it as we watch. Dyer repeats rules and prohibitions from the CASPER workbook, as if I’ve ever read the damn thing, until his voice gives out entirely.

“You could have stopped it,” I say once the fire has crumpled even stone and metal into little more than memory. The ghost says nothing at all, lips drawn and tight as he walks out of the property.

I follow; the ghost of Jeremiah Banks says nothing, offers up less. I don’t know if it was destroyed and I don’t think Dyer will tell me the truth if I ask. I could point out that most people would react the way he did to the basement, that it would have destroyed the reputation of a dead man, but I’d be saying nothing Dyer doesn’t already know. I put my cigarettes away and get into the old RV I bought a week ago.

Dyer slinks into the passenger seat and puts his seat belt on. “Thank you.”

I don’t ask for what. I just grunt and drive away, checking the satnav for the next place HQ wants us to look into while Dyer stares out the window at what uses to be a haunted house and thinks thoughts he doesn’t share with me.

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