The message waiting for me at the hotel desk was short and concise: “Either you come back from England with bona fide proof of a spiritual entity, or you needn’t bother returning to the office. There’s no room in UPRA for crackpots and never-beens.”
It was signed by my boss, and the head of the western U.S. division of the United Psychical Research Association, Anton Melrose II.
“Well, isn’t that just Jim Dandy fine,” I muttered to the message as I crumpled it up and tossed it into the appropriate receptacle situated at the end of the reception desk, wishing as I did so that I could Summon up a demon or two, minor ones, just bad enough to scare the bejeepers out of my employer. “I’d pay good money to see him eat his words.”
The woman at the desk smiled as she passed me the key to my room. “I’m sorry, Miss Telford, we’re not responsible for the quality of the messages. We have to deliver them no matter what they say.”
I smiled back, secure behind the sunglasses I wore everywhere. “That’s OK, it’s just my life falling apart, nothing to worry about. Is there a computer free now, do you know? I’ll only need fifteen minutes.”
Tina, the receptionist at the St. Aloysius Hotel in jolly old London, checked the log for the two computers kept in a small dark room for the use of those businesspeople who couldn’t live without an Internet connection. “It’s all yours.”
I gathered up my bag, ignoring the clinking that came from within, and mumbled my thanks as I limped down the short hallway that led to the computer room. One of the two computers was taken up by a skanky-haired young man of about twenty who raised one pierced eyebrow as I carefully set my bag down next to the chair of the second computer. The clink of glass bottles was loudly evident.
“It’s holy water,” I told him when his pierced eyebrow rose even higher. “For the ghosts. Nothing drinkable. That is, you could drink it, but I’ve had it on the best authority that holy water tastes like tap water that’s oxidized for a couple of days.”
He blinked at me.
“Bland,” I explained, then turned my attention to the computer. I waited until he was busy with his own screen before pushing my sunglasses up so I could better see the computer screen, logging quickly into the e-mail account I’d set up for those rare times UPRA had seen fit to send me outside of the Sacramento area (which is to say, twice), just as quickly scanning the six messages collected. “Spam about an herbal product guaranteeing to make my penis grow larger, spam about low mortgage rates, e-mail from Mom, spam about something to do with furry barnyard friends that I’m not even going to open, e-mail from Corrine, and spam asking me if I’m single. Well, it’s nice to know I’m missed.”
The young man snickered and logged off his computer, pulling up a briefcase that had the name of a major software company embossed on the side. “Do you see lots of ghosts, then?” he asked as he shoved in the chair.
I pushed my sunglasses into their normal position and gave him a little moue of regret. “So many I hardly have a moment to myself. They’re very simple-minded, you know. Really no different than a puppy. Just a kind word or two, a little pat on the head, and they follow you around forever.”
He stood staring at me for a moment as if he couldn’t decide if I was serious or not.
I held up both hands to show him there was nothing up my sleeves. “I’m joking. No ghosts to date.”
He looked relieved, then managed to twist his relief into a familiar sneer common to all young twenty-somethings. I ignored him as he left, pulling my glasses off as I scanned my mother’s e-mail, filing it to be answered later before I clicked on Corrine’s.
Allie: this is just a reminder in case you’ve forgotten—the Dante book signing is at the new Hartwell’s store in Covent Garden, tomorrow night, 7pm London time. Be there or I’ll do something so horrible to you, I legally cannot put it into writing.
Hope you’re having fun! I don’t suppose you took my advice and left the shades at home?
PS: don’t forget to give Dante the key chain I made him. Be sure to tell him how long it took me to embroider his name into the warding pattern. AND DON’T FORGET TO WARD IT! I doubt if I will EVER live down the embarrassment of the time you handed over an unwarded key chain to Russell Crowe!
“Mmm. What a shame. The C.J. Dante key chain was mysteriously left at home,” I told the computer as I logged off and popped my sunglasses back on just in case I ran into anyone in the hallway. For a moment I just sat, exhausted, listening to the sounds of the hotel and the noise outside the window of London on a busy winter afternoon. Anton’s message did nothing but add to my exhaustion. I had seen the handwriting on the wall for the last six months—”produce or else” was his motto, and I was lamentably lacking in the proof department.
“This is it, Allie,” I said aloud to the empty room. “Put up or shut up time, and I have to tell you, the job openings for an unproven Summoner are pretty slim.”
My voice echoed in the room as I continued to sit and dwell on my grim future. It almost seemed like too much trouble to push myself out of the chair and haul my bag of tricks upstairs to the small corner room that had been allotted me, but a glance at my watch got me up and heading to the bed that promised a few hours of much needed blissful nothingness before I had to go off to a haunted inn and hunt ghosts.
The dream started even before I felt myself relax fully into sleep. It was dark, night time, the air damp and musty-smelling. I walked through an empty house, its walls stained with mold and age and unsavory things that my mind shied away from identifying, my footsteps echoing loudly as I moved from room to room, searching for something, a place, somewhere I was supposed to be. Small black shapes skittered just beyond my range of vision in every room I entered, faint, soft phantom noises trailing behind me like a wake. Mice, or something more disturbing? I wondered as I let my fingers trail over a dusty banister that led me downstairs into a dark pool of inky blackness. Fearless as I never was in real life, I pushed opened the door at the foot of the stairs and saw a man stretched out on a table.
A man? Even in my dream I modified that word. He was no mortal man, he was a god, a perfect specimen of masculinity created just for my pleasure. Long black hair spilled onto the table, a halo of ebony against the light wood. His eyes were open, dark, but not as dark as his hair, almost mahogany in color, rich with browns and reds and even a bit of gold flaring around the edges of his irises. The long, chiseled lines of his jaw and squared chin were still, as if he was sleeping, but his eyes followed me as I moved into the room. He was naked but for a piece of cloth covering his groin, his body striped with what looked to be hundreds of small cuts, blood dripping slowly from the wounds onto the floor beneath the table.
I approached him, wanting to touch his wounds, wanting to heal them, but his voice caught and held me in a net of immobility when he spoke my name.
“Allegra,” he said, his eyes dark with torment. “Help me. You are my only hope.”
I reached out to touch him, to push a lock of his hair off his forehead, to reassure him that whatever it was he needed, I would do, that I wouldn’t let him suffer any longer. I would send him on to eternal rest. As my fingers touched his heated skin, I woke up, gasping for air, sitting bolt upright in the bed in my hotel room, shivering despite the fact that I had cranked up the heat just before I settled down for my nap.
“What the…oh no, now I’m dreaming in the daytime?” I reached for the carafe of water that I keep at my bedside. I’ve found that while water can’t wash away the foul taste night terrors invariably leave in my mouth, keeping hydrated was an important part of limiting the length of my nightly trial.
Faint whispers of the dream stayed with me as I showered, brushed my teeth, and dressed in a pair of black wool pants and white silk blouse. I frowned at myself as I pinned my ordinary brown hair out of my eyes, and applied the minimal make-up needed to appear in public without frightening small children or the elderly. There were dark smudges under my eyes, making my skin look bruised.
“It’s going to get a lot worse if I start dreaming during the day, too,” I told my reflection. The Allie in the mirror didn’t look any too happy at that thought. I knew how she felt—sleep was precious enough, if the only time I had to catch up on what I missed each night was taken from me, I’d be a walking zombie in just a couple of days.
I poked around the hotel room for a bit, tidying up my bag of tricks (the digital voice-activated recorder needed new batteries, a bottle of holy water had come loose from its cocoon of cotton and was banging up against the thermal imaging video recorder, and the EMF counter was almost out of its leather case, which would have scratched the front of the ion analyzer). I strapped the motion detectors down firmly, double-checked that the infra-red night scope was secure, and replaced the damaged ultrasonic emission detector with the updated version I’d bought that afternoon.
“Too bad none of this stuff seems to really work,” I told the bag sadly. It declined to answer me. I plopped down on the floor beside it, glancing at the clock. There was still an hour to go before I had to head out.
“No time like the present, I suppose,” I said as I plucked a thick piece of chalk from the bag. “It can’t hurt to give it another shot. What’s the sense in being put in a haunted hotel room if you don’t get to see the ghost?”
Clearing my mind of everything but the vision of an opened door, I traced a circle before me using the chalk. The circle would hold the ghost after I Summoned it, until I either Released it to its next existence, or grounded it into the here and now.
That was the theory, anyhow. I hadn’t actually ever successfully Summoned a real ghost, although I did have a nasty run in with a chill wind in a mansion on the Oregon coast that was supposed to be haunted by a timber baron. Still, as Anton was the first to tell me, a draft does not a ghost make, which left me more than a little desperate. My job with UPRA was at stake, and although I knew England was just teaming with spiritual activity, thus far the ghosties had chosen to stay away from me.
A bit jadedly I intoned the words traditionally used to Summon ghosts.
“It’s not going to work, ” I told my toes as I finished the invocation. “It never works. I’m going to have to go home without one single successful Summoning under my belt, and that’ll be the end of my short and less than brilliant career as a regional Summoner. Stupid English ghosts. You’d think the least they could do is to show up for an out-of-town visitor!”
I fingered the vial of dead man’s ash that I brought with me just in case. Dead man’s ash, for those of you who don’t dabble in Summoning, is created by burning tree limbs that have fallen over a grave—there’s no actual dead man in it, although I like the colorful name. A witch once told me she’d had great luck using dead man’s ash, so I opened the bottle and sprinkled a little of the grey ash out onto my palm, repeated the words of the Summon as I held it over the circle, then released it with the mental image of a door slowly opening to allow all of the possibilities.
The air within the circle shimmered a little. I squinted at it, waving away bits of ash that were wafting out of the circle and straight toward my nose. Was it just the ash, or was there something forming in the circle?
The air was definitely shimmering, although ever so faintly. I batted at a few more bits of ash that were drifting toward my face and wondered if I should sprinkle more dead man’s ash. The air within the circle pearlized, gathering itself as if it wanted to form into something, but couldn’t make up its mind just what that was.
I took in a deep breath preparatory to repeating the words of the Summoning, and ended up sneezing out a bit of ash that had made its way into my sensitive nose.
A small, disgruntled-looking three-legged grey and white cat stood in the circle, glaring at me with yellow eyes. My jaw hit the floor as I realize I could see right through the cat’s hazy body to the bed behind it.
The skin along my arms and back tightened, the hair on my neck standing on end as I realized what I was looking it—a ghost! “I did it! I’ve Summoned a ghost! Oh, my God, I can’t wait to tell them back at the office. You, little kitty, have just saved my job!”
I bounced up and down as I beamed at the cat. “My first ghost, my first real live ghost.”
The cat twitched an ear at my voice, and sat down to lick its hindquarters.
“Well, OK, you’re not alive, but you’re a ghost! A ghost cat! Who’d have thought this room was haunted by a cat? This is so cool!”
I reached into the circle to see if I could feel any sensation around the cat, but it wavered and broke up like a bad TV picture.
“Oh, right, I can’t break the circle unless I ground you first.” I crawled over to my bag, rooting around in it until I found my notebook. “This is just so amazing! I can’t believe I did it! A ghost! Anton is going to be pea-green with jealousy. OK, pussycat, just sit tight there and I’ll ground you so you can leave the circle. Let’s see…um…grounding, grounding…ah. Here we go.”
The procedure to ground a Summoned spirit was pretty straightforward: Summoned beings were, by the very nature of Summoning, bound to the person who called them. Grounding them simply meant that they could not slip off to any other plane of existence without the Summoner first Releasing them.
“The forces of life shine strong within me,” I told the cat. It looked unimpressed at my prose and continued to lick its rear end. “The power of death binds you to me. Until death overtakes life, you will heed my command. By my words, you are thus bound.”
It was short and simple, not much to it at all, but as I spoke the words and traced protective symbols on my left hand and over my right eye, the figure of the cat slowly solidified until it looked like a translucent grey-scale picture of a cat licking its butt. I reached my hand into the circle, and was delighted to note the cat’s image didn’t shimmer in the least. “At least I know the grounding works,” I told it as my hand scooped through the cat’s middle. Other than a slight tingling of my fingertips, the ghost cat felt like…well, air. Slightly tingly air.
“Pictures!” I shouted, scrabbling in the bag. I pulled out my digital camera and snapped my fingers a few times until the cat looked at me. Its ears flattened back at the flash, but I got a few shots before it stood up and hobbled off to investigate my shoes. “They are just not going to believe this back home,” I mumbled as I looked at the back of the camera at the images I’d just taken. The cat was faint and a bit fuzzy, but clearly visible. I could have hugged it, I was so happy.
I was busy with the ion analyzer when the alarm on the clock went off. “Drat it all! Carlos will be waiting for me.” I chewed my lip and looked back at the cat. It had limped over to a chair and curled up on a pillow, turning its back to me as I used every machine I had to record its presence. I wanted to stay and continue recording it, but it had taken me three month’s worth of begging and pleading e-mails to arrange for a local representative of the Society for the Investigation of the Paranormal to show me one of the most haunted spots in London. I couldn’t cancel.
I got to my feet and collected the lighter version of the dark glasses I wear during the day. A quick look in the mirror confirmed what I had known—my eyes hadn’t changed during the miracle of the Summoning. I glanced one more time at the cat, but it was apparently sleeping. According to the rules of Summoning, it shouldn’t be able to leave without me releasing it, but maybe there was an expiration date or something that meant I only had a little time with it.
“Just stay put, Kitty, and I’ll be back as soon as I possibly can,” I told it as I shoved my glasses on and grabbed my purse. The Do Not Disturb sign swung from the door handle as I closed the door and headed downstairs.
The guy slouched over a magazine at the reception desk was the evening clerk; I recognized him from the last couple of nights when I had slunk out of the hotel on my ghost-hunting missions.
“Hi. I’m in room 114. I’m going out for a bit, will you take any messages for me? Oh, and I left some equipment out, very fragile and expensive equipment, so I don’t want anyone going into my room.”
“Not a problem,” the clerk said without even lifting his eyes from his magazine.
I hesitated a moment, then decided to throw caution to the wind. “Um…I’ve heard that the room I’m in is supposed to be haunted.”
He looked up at that, frowning at my dark glasses.
“Eye condition,” I told him with a wave at my face. “My eyes are…uh…sensitive.”
“Do you happen to know anything about room 114? Who it is supposed to be haunted by, that is?”
His frown deepened. “If you’d like another room—”
“No, no, it’s not that, the room is fine. I was just curious about the ghost that’s supposed to haunt the room. I love history, you see, and thought there might be an interesting story connected to the room.”
“Oh,” he said again, his gaze slipping down to his magazine. “Supposed to be an old lady and her cat. Died in the room, in a fire.”
“The old lady or the cat?”
He shrugged, and moistened a pudgy finger to turn the magazine page. “Both.”
“Ah. When was that, do you know?”
He shot me an annoyed look. “What’s it to you, then?”
It was my turn to shrug. “Just casual interest.”
He eyed me suspiciously for a moment, then returned to the magazine. “I heard the old lady died sometime during World War II. This hotel was blitzed. Everyone made it out but her and the cat.”
Interesting. I wonder why my Summons drew only the cat and not the human ghost? Maybe I didn’t use enough dead man’s ash. Or perhaps I just didn’t have enough strength to Summon a more complex spirit as a human. Former human.
I nodded my thanks to the desk clerk and limped off to find a cab. When you have one leg shorter than another, riddled with scar tissue that has defied even the most dedicated of orthopedic surgeons, you hesitate to spend long hours on your feet, let alone walking anywhere that can easily be reached by a comfy black cab. I used the short cab ride out to the building located near the Southwark Bridge to muse over whether or not the successful Summoning of a ghostly cat meant I’d have luck at the haunted inn.
“Maybe just a smidge more dead man’s ash,” I mused aloud before realizing the cab driver was giving me a worried look in the mirror. I smiled in what I hoped was a suitably reassuring manner and kept the rest of my musing to myself.
Ten minutes later I limped around to the back of a tiny old building dwarfed by a nearby sports complex. The building had originally been an inn about three hundred years before, but had most recently been used as headquarters for a trendy decorating shop. Now the building was empty, reportedly so due to the unusual and unexplained “phenomenon” that was connected with the inn’s distant past. A thin man of medium height stood shivering by the door, waving his flashlight at me as I hobbled up.
“There you, thought you’d never come. I’m freezin’ my arse off here!”
“Sorry. I take it you’re Carlos?”
The man stomped his feet, nodding as he pulled out a key and unlocked the door. “I can only give you twenty minutes. There’s a show everyone from SIP is going to, and it starts at ten.”
“A show?” I asked as I followed him into the building, pulling the ultrasonic emission detector from my bag and flipping it on. “What sort of a show?”
Our footsteps echoed eerily as we walked down a corridor paved with broken flagstones, our breath little white clouds of air that puffed before us. I sniffed, then blew out a disgusted breath. The air was thick with stink from the nearby Thames—the whole building clearly suffered from damp, long fingers of mildew creeping up the wallpapered walls. In addition to the smell of a damp, closed up building, the sharp acidic note of rodent droppings made it clear that although the human inhabitants might shun it, the four-legged residents found it an entirely suitable abode.
“It’s not really a show per se, more of a test for psychics. It’s sponsored by a very powerful medium, Guarda White. She’s holding nightly Summonings for a week, trying to assemble a group of proven psychics. Everyone in SIP is mad to try out for a spot on her team.”
It sounded like a bunch of hooey to me. Dedicated Summoners did not perform in theaters for the amusement of the masses. Still, Carlos was my host. It probably was best I not ridicule his excitement.
“Why is she assembling a team of psychics?” I asked as we climbed a dark staircase. I had my own flashlight out now, my sunglasses pushed up as I alternated scanning the ground in front of me for debris, and the walls of the common room that stretched before us. The ultrasonic detector was quiet. I paused long enough to pop it back into the bag and pull out the ion detector before hurrying to catch up with Carlos.
“—creating the greatest team of paranormal investigators that Britain has ever seen. It’s all pure research, of course, the team being sent out to hotspots to locate and verify entities and disturbances. The team will be paid from a private fund set up by Mrs. White.”
In other words, it was a pet project set up by another fan of the unexplained who likely had more money than brain cells. Ah well, I thought to myself as we climbed to the top floor of the building, her little group of devotees certainly can’t hurt the cause, and might actually do some good if she used scientific methods to obtain proof that would shake even the most skeptical of critics’ arguments against the existence of ghosts, poltergeists, and other until-now unexplained phenomenon.
“This is the top floor,” Carlos said, the light from his flashlight sweeping in an arc around the area at the top of the stairs. “That room over there has had recorded temperature drops of ten degrees. The door at the end of the landing leads to the room where a pig farmer was murdered. He’s seen only on nights with a full moon, so you probably won’t have much luck there. Across the hall is the room where a vicar named Phillip Michaels was set upon by thieves, and left hanging. And to the left—” he turned and shined his light beyond me. I turned my face away. There was no need to scare him. “—is the room where the Red Lady is seen.”
“That’s the one who jumped to her death rather than submit to her bridegroom?” I asked as I pulled out the infrared scope, juggling the ion detector, flashlight, and scope not too successfully as I headed to the left.
“That’s the one.”
I set my bag outside the door and took a reading at the door. There was nothing. Cautiously, so as not to scare any spirits who might be lurking within, I opened the door. It creaked open in suitably eerie fashion.
The room had a couple of broken pieces of office furniture, and a strong smell of mice, but nothing that looked even remotely ghostly. One by one I checked my detectors, and got no reading. Carlos stood in the doorway, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot as I dictated a few notes on what I was seeing and feeling (cold, and a distinct aversion to mice) to my voice recorder.
I glanced at my watch and realized I had only seven minutes left to examine the rest of the building. I gnawed my lip for a minute, trying to decide what to do. I really didn’t want to be left alone in the building, but I did want to try a Summoning after my success earlier this evening. The question was, how much did I want it? I took a deep breath and reminded myself that although I’d seen lots of strange things in my time—not the least of which was a three-legged semi-transparent cat currently sleeping in my hotel room—at no time had I ever felt physically threatened. I was a Summoner, after all. I had wards. I was in control, and no one could take that from me. I traced a protection symbol in front of me and said, “Um…Carlos, why don’t you go on to this séance thingy you want to see. I’ll close up here when I’m done.”
I peeked at him through the screen of my hair. He looked hesitant for as long as it took him to realize that the sooner he left, the sooner he’d be warm. “If you’re sure you don’t mind being here by yourself?” He looked around and only just suppressed a shudder.
“No, no problem. I don’t mind these sorts of places. They’re usually very peaceful.” They were until I’d successfully Summoned my first ghost, that was. My palms pricked at the thought of what I might accomplish in a really haunted building like this. “If you just set the keys next to my bag, I’ll lock up on my way out, and drop the keys by your office in the morning.”
He hesitate for a minute. “You’re sure?”
I swallowed hard and waved him away without look at him. “Absolutely. I’m just going to try my hand at a spot of Summoning, then I’ll check out the rest of the rooms. It’s only the top floor that’s supposed to be active, yes?”
“OK, then, I’ll check out these rooms, then toddle back to my hotel. Have a nice séance.”
He was gone before the words left my lips. I sat quietly and listened to the sound of his footsteps as they retreated down the stairs, then the faint percussion of the back door closing behind him. I took an admittedly shaky breath, looking around the room. I was alone. By myself. In a building that was supposed to be one of the most haunted places in London.
Sometimes I’m not very bright.
An hour later I rose from where I had been kneeling in the room supposedly haunted by a murdered pig farmer. My leg was stiff and sore from sitting on hard wooden floors, my fingers were almost numb with cold despite my gloves, and I had lost all feeling in my nose.
“So much for one of London’s most haunted buildings,” I said sourly to the empty room as I gathered up my equipment and started for the stairs. The feeling of uneasiness that first claimed me when Carlos left never really dissipated, but I haven’t fought for control of my life to let a little thing like fear rule me. So even though the hair on the back of my neck was standing on end the entire time I checked out the upper rooms, I gritted my teeth and conducted four Summonings, none of which brought me anything more than a desire for a thermos of hot coffee and a really big piece of Key Lime pie.
“And there’s no chance of either materializing in this place,” I said aloud as I limped heavily down the stairs. My voice echoed strangely as it reached the second floor. I got a severe case of goose bumps, but nothing showed up on either the two detectors I held, or on the more efficient scanner that made up my personal sensitivity to otherworldly happenings. I stopped at the bottom of the stairs and held my breath, opening myself up to the building, imagining myself slowly walking through the rooms. There was nothing on this floor that disturbed me, and nothing on the ground floor below it, but deeper in the earth, in the basement, there was a shadowed area that made me shiver uncontrollably. I couldn’t penetrate the darkness to determine what was there, but I could feel its awareness, a sense of blackness that went beyond the mere absence of color.
Something soulless was down there.
And whatever it was, it knew I was here.