I gave up my eyes in order to see more clearly.
I like to tell myself that if I had known then what I know now, I never would have made such a Faustian bargain, but the truth is that I probably would have done it anyway. I was pretty desperate in those days, the search for Elizabeth having consumed every facet of my life like a malignant cancer gorging itself on healthy cells, and I’d have tried anything to find even the smallest clue about what happened to her.
And yet despite my sacrifice, I’m not completely blind. I can actually see better in complete darkness than most people can in broad daylight. I can no longer see colors—everything comes out in a thousand different shades of gray—but at least I can see. Call it an odd side effect of the ritual I underwent, if you will. But the minute you put me in the light, everything goes dark. In direct sunlight I can’t even see the outline of my hand if I hold it right in front of my face. All I see is white. Endless vistas of white.
Electrical lights are almost as bad, though with a pair of strong UV sunglasses I can see the vague shapes and outlines of things around me. I lose details, of course; even up close, I wouldn’t know the face of my own mother from that of a stranger, but I can tell the difference between a horse and a house.
Enough to make my way about with the help of a cane, at least. If I have to have light, then candlelight is best. The weaker the better. At home, I prefer complete darkness. It tends to discourage visitors, too.
Tonight, for the first time in weeks, I had some work to do. The offer filtered down late last night through the handful of people who know how to get in touch with me for just these kinds of things. I don’t have an office. I don’t advertise my services. No “Jeremiah Hunt, Exorcist” business cards or any crap like that. Most of the time, I just want to be left alone. But occasionally, if the time and circumstances are right, I’ll help out the odd individual here or there. I hadn’t decided if I was going to take the job until reviewing the sorry state of my bank account earlier this morning. The monthly checks from the university still come in, the benefits of a well-negotiated severance package in the wake of Elizabeth’s disappearance, but they are never enough for what I need. Searching for someone who may as well have fallen off the face of the earth isn’t cheap. A quick infusion of capital goes a long way.
Even if it does mean facing off against a homicidal ghost.
You see, one of the consequences of my decision to relinquish my sight was a newfound ability to see the ghosts that surround us on a daily basis. Arthur C. Clarke once said that behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living. And while I haven’t counted them all, I can say with confidence that Clarke was off by more than a few zeroes.
The truth is that the dead are everywhere.
They wander the city streets, drifting unnoticed through the crowds. They sit beside you on the bus, stand next to you in the supermarket checkout line; sometimes one or two of them might even follow you home from work like lost dogs looking for a place to stay.
That little chill you sometimes feel for no reason at all? That’s their way of letting you know that they are there, watching and waiting.
They like to congregate in public places—subway stations, churches, nightclubs—anywhere that the living can be found in significant numbers. Some say they find sustenance in all that raw emotion, as if they were feeding off us like some kind of psychic vampires, but in the three years I’ve been watching them I’ve never found evidence to support that theory. I think it is more likely that they simply miss us. Miss being alive. When they watch us, their gaze is so full of longing and pain that it’s the only explanation that makes sense to me.
The dead are everywhere and I can see them as plainly as you can see yourself in a mirror. The buildings around me might be as hazy as a summer fog, but the dead shine brightly even in the dark.
The feeling of the cab slowing down and pulling over snagged me out of my reverie and back to the present.
“Here you go, pal. Fourteen sixty-seven Eliot Ave. You sure you want to get out here?”
While I couldn’t see what he was seeing, I could imagine the neighborhood with little difficulty, and understood his hesitation. I’d driven through the area in the old days and knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that it could’ve only gotten worse instead of better. West Roxbury is one of those places you avoid in midafternoon, never mind after dark; a warren of tenement buildings and three-family homes, all of them run-down and decrepit, long past their prime. Graffiti and gang signs are prominent and iron grilles cover the windows, even on the upper levels, scant protection against a stray bullet from the weekly drive-by but good enough to deter the casual crackhead looking for an easy score. The entire neighborhood probably should have been torn down years ago, but should have and will be are two very different things. The place will probably still be standing long after I’m gone; urban blight has a way of hanging around long after its expiration date.
“Yeah,” I said. “This is the place.”
I dug in the pocket of my jeans, locating the twenty by the triangle it had been folded into earlier, and handed it through the barrier, asking for a five back in change. I heard the driver shift in his seat, pull out his stack of cash, and shuffle through it. Another creak of old leather as he turned my way. Believing I was good and truly blind, which wasn’t all that far from the truth, the cabbie put his hand through the narrow opening and pushed the bill into mine.
“A five it is, pal.”
A discreet cough came from just outside my open window.
“That’s no five. It’s a single,” said a low voice.
The driver was fast but I was faster. I grabbed his hand before he could pull it back through the barrier and bent it at the wrist. I heard him grunt in pain and I twisted his arm a bit harder, just to be sure he got the message.
Leaning forward, I took off my sunglasses with my free hand, treating the driver to a close-up of my face. Eyes that had once been as blue as the Caribbean Sea were now without pupils and whiter than snow, framed by the scars from when I had tried to claw them out of my head. It was an unsettling sight and one I had learned to use to my advantage.
“Thanks, pal,” I said, drawing out the last word with a heavy dose of sarcasm, intentionally mocking him, my voice as dry as ice and just as cold. “Since you can’t resist being an asshole, why don’t we just skip the tip altogether, huh? Give me my nine fifty before I break this glass and knock you on your ass, blind or not.”
As the cabbie scrambled to comply, I kept up the pressure on his wrist, more than willing to snap his arm in half if he tried to cheat me again.
Finally he found the right change and handed it back to me. I released his arm and then quickly climbed out of the cab, just in case he tried to get even by pulling away before I was clear and leaving me sprawled in the street.
The cabbie shouted a few curses at me but was apparently unsettled enough to leave it at that. He pulled away from the curb with a squeal of tires, leaving me standing on the sidewalk next to my Good Samaritan.
“Mr. Hunt?” he asked.
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak yet, my anger at the cabbie still bouncing around inside my head like an errant pinball.
“Joel Thompson, Mr. Hunt. We spoke on the phone?”
I recognized his voice, a thin, reedy warble that reminded me of a whip-poor-will. Not that we get many whip-poor-wills in Massachusetts, but you get the idea. I took a deep breath, forcing my anger back down into the shadows of my soul, put my hand out in the general direction of his voice, and waited for him to take it. He was clearly nervous; his palm was damp with sweat, and it didn’t take a genius to recognize that I unnerved him almost as much as did the events that had forced him to seek me out in the first place.
Frankly, I didn’t give a shit. Miss Congeniality, I was not. All I wanted was the money they were offering, money that could help me continue my search for Elizabeth.
“Thanks for your help with the cab.”
He brushed off my thanks, embarrassed for some reason I couldn’t identify, and then told me that the others were waiting across the street in front of the building.
“Let’s get to it then,” I said.
He led me to the other side and introduced me to them one by one.
I could tell Olivia Jones was elderly by the thinness and frailty of her hand as I held it in my own. Frank Martin was her exact opposite, a veritable tank of a human being, his dark form looming over me in my limited vision, and his grip felt like it could have crushed solid steel. It was hard to guess anything about Judy Hertfort and Tania Harris, the two younger women in the group, other than the fact that both seemed to favor cheap perfumes I had a hard time identifying. Last but not least was Steven Marley. He was the only one to actually sound like he meant it when he said, “Pleased to meet you.”
I could just imagine what I looked like to them, the ankle-length duster I habitually wore hanging loosely over jeans and a thick work shirt, like some kind of thin, ragged apparition out of the Old West, my face hidden behind a pair of dark sunglasses.
I could feel all of them staring at me, a combination of fear, anger, and uncertainty radiating off them like heat from the pavement in the heart of summer. Considering the circumstances, I couldn’t be sure if it was directed at me or what I was there to do, so I let it go.
Like I said before, I didn’t care either way.
I wasn’t the one with the notoriety here, they were. You couldn’t pass a newsstand or a television in the last few weeks without the Silent Six staring back at you, famous not for what they had done but for what they had failed to do.
Eight months ago a young woman, known on the street as Velvet, had been beaten, raped, and ultimately left for dead on the stairwell inside the tenement building behind us. Each of the individuals in the group in front of me had looked out of a window or door, seen the young woman arguing vehemently with her companion, and then had done absolutely nothing, not wanting to get involved. When she’d yelled for help, they’d ignored her. When she’d screamed in fear and pain, they’d pretended not to hear. And when she lay dying on the cold floor of her shitty little apartment, she did so all alone while her killer walked off, free as a bird.
If she’d been just another poor street hooker knocked off by her john maybe nobody would’ve cared. But Velvet, aka Melissa Sullivan, had been a third-year student at Northeastern University. She had gotten into more than a few things dear old Mom and Dad back home wouldn’t have approved of, including a little tricking on the side to help pay for a growing coke habit. Unfortunately, one of her customers had decided that he wanted a little more than she was willing to give and had taken it from her by brute force.
Her white, middle-class parents blamed everything and everyone they could think of for the demise of their “precious little girl,” conveniently forgetting that said little girl made a habit out of sucking off complete strangers in dark alleys for cash, a pretty glaring omission if you ask me. And of course they made sure that the evening news heard their version of the story loud and clear. You can laugh, but to hear them tell it, you’d think Velvet was a freakin’ saint.
Before you knew it, the city had a media firestorm on its hands.
It was only later when the police caught the killer that the Six found the courage to come forward and tell someone what they’d seen. To give them some credit, in the end it was their testimony that put the killer behind the bars of the maximum security wing at Walpole State Prison for the rest of his miserable life.
Apparently, though, Velvet felt their actions were a case of too little, too late.
And now she was making them pay for it.
I thought back to the call I had with Thompson earlier in the morning. He described being a captive in his own home; feeling watched, stalked even, whenever he was inside the building. Objects would fly off the walls or move around on their own, often without any warning whatsoever. His nights were spent in sheer terror as something seemed to hover at his bedside, waves of anger and hatred radiating off of it. Lately the presence in the building had become more aggressive, to where it was actually trying to do harm, opening elevator doors on empty shafts, shoving from behind when anyone dared to take the stairs.
I’d come here to put an end to all that.
Spirits come in a variety of types and sizes. At the bottom of the food chain are the haunts, little more than whispers in the dark. You can sense their presence, but they don’t have any real physical form. Next you’ve got your standard apparitions, ghostly presences that repeat the same motions over and over again, like memories caught in an endlessly repeating loop. The city’s largest public park, Boston Common, is full of apparitions, spirits of the criminals who were publicly hanged there during the late 1600s. Visitors often claim they can see the apparitions walking the path toward the place where the gallows once stood, only to vanish immediately upon reaching it. A step up from the apparitions, you have your actual ghosts, spiritual presences that are bound to our plane for one reason or another, unable or perhaps unwilling to move on. Ghosts are about as aware of us as we are of them and delight in showing themselves to us whenever they can. Poltergeists are a subclass of ghosts, able to move objects in the physical world through sheer force of will. The foghorn-blowing phantom that occupies the Baker Island Lighthouse is probably our city’s best known example. Spectres are another subclass: ghosts that have gone insane and seek only to annoy, and sometimes harm, the living.
Rarer still, and at the very top of the hierarchy, are the shades. These are ghosts that, given the right opportunity and the right stimulus, have the ability to reclaim their living form even long after their original death.
I’ve gotten pretty good at identifying just what kind of ghost I’m facing off against from the descriptions of those who’ve encountered it. In this case, I was betting that Thompson’s own guilt was amplifying the impact of the ghost’s presence and that when I got upstairs I’d find an angry, but basically harmless, poltergeist waiting to be sent on her way.
With the introductions over, I got right down to business.
“You have my money?” I asked, addressing no one in particular.
There was a bit of a rustle, people shifting uncomfortably, and then the big guy, Martin, opened his mouth.
“Uh-uh. Do your job and then you’ll get paid.”
I turned my head in his direction, listening to his breathing, feeling his anger, trying to decide how far he was willing to push this, and then made up my mind.
“Fuck that,” I said.
I turned away and stepped toward the street, my cane leading the way.
“Mr. Hunt?” a voice called.
That would be Thompson, wondering if I was really going to leave them.
Damn right I was.
I raised two fingers to my mouth and whistled shrilly for a cab, long practice having taught me just the right tone to use to cut through the sounds of passing traffic.
“Mr. Hunt! Wait!”
I stopped and let him catch up to me, though I moved my arm away from his touch when he reached out to hold it.
“Where are you going?” he asked, his nervousness now coming through loud and clear. “You agreed to help us!”
“I explained my terms on the phone,” I said patiently. “I get paid, up front. And I keep the money whether I am successful or not. This isn’t a fuckin’ walk in the park, you know.”
Jerking a thumb back in the direction of the group, I continued, “If Grape Ape back there doesn’t want to play by the rules, then he can go right back to dealing with her on his own. No skin off my back.”
I heard a car pull up next to me, figured it for the cab I was trying to flag down, and held out a hand in a signal for him to wait.
“You can’t just leave us here with…” He waved his hands around, flustered and unable to make himself say it aloud.
I smiled, knowing it was not a pleasant sight. “Of course I can. I’m not the one who left her to die.”
“It wasn’t like that!” he said sharply.
Again, I really didn’t care. His guilt or innocence made no difference to me.
He must have sensed that I wouldn’t be moved on the topic, for his anger suddenly went as quickly as it had arrived. “Can you give me a moment to talk with them?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said, filling my voice with disinterest. I needed the money, but I’d be damned if I let him know that. First rule of any negotiation: never let ’em know you’re desperate.
The wait wasn’t very long. Whatever he said to them must have worked, for Thompson returned after a moment and passed me an envelope. I could tell by the feel of it that it was thick with cash.
I told the cabbie I wasn’t going to need him after all, made a quick check of the pockets of the duster I was wearing to be certain that my tools were still in place, and then asked the question that would separate the men from the boys.
“So who’s going in with me?”
Copyright © 2011 by Joseph Nassise