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“Are we set? Everything on?” Sondra marched in like MacArthur inspecting the troops, and inspired almost as much dread. Three heads bobbed and murmured in assent as she walked around behind the table that held our equipment: multiple monitors which were fed from infrared cameras in five of the seven bedrooms, sound analyzers, computers, various hand-held devices for detecting EMF fields, basic thermometers for temperature spikes and drops. Vinny leaned against the counter, arms folded across his chest, already watching the monitors for any activity. Cal, the audio guy, sat with headphones on, listening for anything that might indicate the presence of a ghost: disembodied voices, thumps, footsteps where there shouldn’t be any. Chris was the computer whiz. There was nothing this guy couldn’t do, including hack into just about anything. I always thought his talents were wasted with us, but then there was less likelihood of prison time involved.
Sondra’s television pitch was flawless. She came across as a skeptical but concerned researcher, and while she professed a belief in the existence of paranormal activity she took a hard line when examining evidence. Her reputation had made our team one of the most respected in a rather dodgy industry.
“We’re not ‘ghost hunters’” Sondra would say. “They are not ‘prey.’ We are ‘spirit liaisons,’ helping to facilitate communication with the other side. As such, we do not set up ‘command posts.’ That’s a very martial description for wanting simple contact. We establish ‘communication centers’ where, with the aid of modern technology, we can assess potential evidence of the presence of spirits.”
She was mesmerizing when she went into her spiel; even nonbelievers paid polite attention. There was an air of authority in the way she spoke, the way she engaged the camera and the audience beyond. She was young enough with the requisite amount of sex appeal for the camera to love her, but mature and educated enough to have credibility beyond that of hobbyists. On camera she was friendly, joking, showcasing a rapport with her team that didn’t really exist once the cameras were off. To say she was prickly would be a kindness. Apart from all the banter, she was in deadly earnest to be the first to provide irrefutable proof of the existence of ghosts. I wasn’t entirely sure how she thought that would happen. It seemed to me no matter what we came up with, the scientific community would never say it was enough, there would always be a ‘rational’ explanation.
She was in it for the potential glory; I took the part of the unconvinced skeptic. Mostly I was along for the paycheck and because I couldn’t stand working in an office. It was going to take a lot more than creaking doors in a house that had settled and now stood on the slightest angle to convince me ghosts were real.
We had been called in to investigate an old farmhouse by the owner who described strange happenings: Windows and doors would open or shut on their own, toys would be found in the hallway although the children were strictly taught to put their toys away, and the sound of a child giggling and running in the upstairs hallway had been heard on several occasions when it was confirmed that none of the children who lived in the house were present.
“You do understand we’re not exorcists,” Sondra told the husband. “Even if we can confirm paranormal activity, there’s nothing we can do about it. We can’t make it stop.”
“Sounds like a live one,” I joked. Sondra shot me one of her “shut-up-or-else” looks that I shrugged off as I went back to setting up the cameras. The family had agreed to spend the night elsewhere so any children heard in the house would not be theirs.
That night we began in the basement of the old place. It was divided into four separate rooms, and one small area that had never been finished but was closed off by a door. One room held firewood, keeping it dry and mostly spider-free. A second room was a play area for the children. In the space beneath the staircase that led down into the basement was a small pantry that held mason jars of ancient, unidentifiable preserves. I picked one up and turned it around, holding my flashlight on it. It was so old there was no telling what the contents might have once been. The last room held the furnace that had been installed when the old house had been converted to oil heat, probably sometime in the 1930s. It was a free-standing tank, covered in asbestos. From there a bulkhead staircase led to the outside. We were told it was kept locked.
“Ok, we’re live,” Cal said.
Sondra walked down the length of the table, watching each of the monitors for a few seconds before moving on to the next. Like a doctor getting a baseline reading of vitals she got a sense of each to compare should anything change. Unlike other teams we didn’t rove the house once the gear was deployed. We tended to sit back and let the situation unfold on its own, as if it were a regular night when anything might happen. Sondra was the only one in the spotlight making contact.
Her monologue for the opening of the television show explained her method in a way that sounded almost logical. “Attempting to provoke any spirits present with a combative manner has seldom been effective. Most sightings and encounters with spirits have occurred at unexpected times to people who were doing nothing extraordinary. They were simply in the right place at the right time.” Which meant we sat back while she got all the glory.
Sondra took her night vision camera and headed into the living room where the most recent activity had been reported. I had to give her credit. In spite of my firm conviction that ghosts did not exist, I still didn’t relish the idea of sitting in a darkened room in a strange house where other people had reported ghost sightings. Probably too many horror movies as a child, I told myself. I knew what went into creating the scenes on screen, but somehow when you’re sitting in a supposedly haunted house your imagination tends to go into overdrive, and despite all your rational thinking you find yourself jumping at unexpected sounds and seeing shapes moving out of the corner of your eye. This was one of those nights.
Just before eleven-thirty, one by one, each monitor showed some sort of shadow cross in front of the cameras in each of the rooms, moving from left to right, as if someone was making their way through the house. Was the ghost looking for the family? Maybe it was just the nightly rounds. I picked up my radio and quietly signaled to Sondra to come back to the kitchen-cum-comm center. After waiting a few minutes and there was no sign of her I risked talking into the radio.
“Sondra, we’re seeing something on the cameras in here. You wanna come have a look?” I spoke barely above a whisper, trying not to let my voice get picked up by any of the voice recorders we had set up to capture EVPs – electronic voice phenomena. The recorders were vastly more sensitive than the human ear, and we often came away from our investigations with soft, murmured sounds that Cal enhanced sufficiently so that we could generally make out single words, or short phrases. What they actually were I wasn’t sure, and I was as yet unwilling to admit they were ghost voices, but it became a game to try to recognize words in the sounds. In the back of my mind I thought it was probably wishful thinking combined with sounds picked up from television sets or nearby radios, but whatever it was, it was a fairly common result.
Another minute ticked by with no response from Sondra. Vinny, with his usual scowl, got up from the table and walked out to the living room to see what she was doing. We hadn’t stationed a camera in the living room, feeling our best chance to catch any sighting would be the basement or bedrooms. We should have put one in there. Vinny returned to the kitchen less than a minute later.
“She’s not there. Did she go upstairs? Any sign of her on the cameras up there?”
“What? No, nothing.”
We all looked at each other, unsure what to do next.
“Maybe she went to take a leak,” Chris suggested.
“She wouldn’t do that without telling us,” Vinny said, impatient and annoyed. He chewed his thumb for a minute. “If we can’t find her in the next five minutes, I’m calling this off.”
“You gotta be kidding. When she gets back and sees what we got on those cameras upstairs she’ll turn us into ghosts for blowing the best data we’ve collected yet,” I said. I wasn’t kidding. If she found out we got spooked and ended a night like this because she wandered off for a minute we’d all be looking for new jobs.
“What if she went outside and tripped and fell? She could be unconscious somewhere and we’re in here watching tv.”
Cal and Chris waited and watched me and Vinny. I wasn’t sure what to do.
“All right,” I finally said. “Vinny, take a flashlight and a radio and go see if you can find her. Check outside too, in case she went out for some reason. Radio back as soon as you find anything. We know she’s not in the upstairs bedrooms, or we’d see her,” I said glancing at the monitors. “Just check around outside, but don’t wander off. She couldn’t have gone far in this short period of time.” I knew Vinny was dying for a cigarette and figured this was as good an excuse as any for him to go out and light up for a minute. I was getting a little rattled now, afraid she had fallen and gotten hurt, but tried to tell myself I was overreacting. This was a first, we’d never lost track of anyone during a stakeout before. It could be her radio was off, or the batteries were dead. We went through a checklist when we set up and I was sure it had been working earlier, but who knew? Maybe she shut it off accidentally. Stranger things had happened, I told myself. Batteries frequently went inexplicably dead.
Five minutes after Vinny had left, my radio crackled and Vinny’s voice said, “Nothing out here, no sign of her. She come back yet?”
I depressed the talk button. “No, nothing. Have you gone completely around the house?”
More static, and crackling came back before I heard Vinny. “Yeah, walked completely around twice, yelling her name. I’m coming back.”
When Vinny walked back into the kitchen we all looked from one to another.
“This is crazy,” he said. “Where the hell did she go? I hope she doesn’t think this is funny.”
Sondra had almost no sense of humor so I couldn’t imagine this was some kind of practical joke. We sat silently for a couple of minutes, no one sure what to do next. I put the radio up to my mouth and decided the hell with it. This was too much. “Sondra,” I said in a normal voice, no longer concerned with whispering, “This is Kyle. I’m calling it a night if we don’t hear from you right now. I’m pulling the plug and calling the cops.”
“Cops?” Chris looked at me. “What for?”
“Because we can’t find her, and if she’s hurt she may need help. If she doesn’t contact us in five, this investigation is over and we light this place up like a Christmas tree and get help searching for her.”
“Shit,” Cal muttered.
The whole thing was so improbable I hardly believed it was happening.
Within an hour we were tearing down the equipment, and four police cruisers were parked at the house, flooding the yard and gardens with search lights. Two hours later no sign of Sondra had been turned up. The whole thing still seemed like a bad dream. Every one of us was a suspect. We were all interviewed separately, then released, but advised to retain counsel. The homeowners, as far as I know, never set foot in the house again. We spent weeks analyzing all the recordings, both audio and visual. Apart from the shadow crossing the rooms, there was no other visual sign of anything. But the audio recordings practically froze my blood. After Cal was done doing what he could with them, I had them sent to a special lab in San Francisco. Their equipment was light years ahead of what we had, although our stuff was state of the art for what we did.
What they found we had was nearly ten minutes of what sounded like “come away” followed by laughing.
I sat down, listening over and over to the recording. If I’d been expecting an answer or to hear Sondra’s voice, I was disappointed.
The news picked up the story, the missing woman abducted by ghosts. We started getting crank calls from around the country, and every paranormal show wanted to interview us. At first we played along, hoping something might turn up some lead as to what had really happened to Sondra. If she had stepped outside and been abducted by some random nutjob passing by it was hoped all our television appearances would encourage the perpetrator to come forward, or taunt the police or us with information, a claim of responsibility, demands for ransom, anything. The police kept the case open for nearly a year, but nothing ever turned up, and all the leads, the few we got, went cold pretty fast. I felt sick, and suggested we close down the company.
“Not a chance, this group is everything she wanted it to be. Even if we never get her back, Sondra would want us to keep on going,” Vinny argued.
I supposed he was right, but it felt wrong without her. I’d never been overly fond of her as a person, but I couldn’t deny she had a nose for this business, and getting funding and publicity.
“So what do you suggest? We get a new frontwoman?”
“No, no, never. No, we go on with us. Circle the wagons. Maybe in time we could think about adding someone if we had to, see how it goes. For now keep the core group, and carry on.”
“He’s right,” Cal said. “We don’t need a replacement for her. We do what we know how to do. We know the drill. Replacing her at this point wouldn’t look good.”
We’d been out of circulation for the better part of the year, and if we were going to keep going we needed to get back to it. Soon. I’d been having nightmares about the incident, and they were getting worse.
“She’s trying to contact you from the other side,” Vinny said. I was never sure if he was joking or not. I chose to ignore the comment. We’d had more psychics than I could count calling us with what they claimed were messages from Sondra. We quit answering the phone, letting the voicemail take it.
Then one day I found myself back at the old farmhouse where we had last seen Sondra. I parked across the street and stood outside my car smoking a cigarette. I didn’t know what I was doing back there. The house was still deserted. The owners hadn’t even put the place on the market, they had simply fled.
“The house isn’t for sale.”
I turned to find a young woman behind me. She had long black hair, probably dyed, but it suited her. She was dressed in a long black gauzy skirt, and black blouse. Goth, I thought. She didn’t have the extreme makeup Goths typically did, though.
“I know,” I said. “I was just passing by.”
She eyed me slowly. “You’re one of the ghost hunter guys who worked with that woman who disappeared, aren’t you?”
I was a little surprised that she remembered but we had been on tv quite a bit. She looked like the type to pay attention to news stories like this. “Yes, I am.”
She nodded. “Would you like to come in and have a cup of tea?” She nodded toward the little house I was parked in front of. It was a modest Cape Cod style, neatly kept.
“Thanks, but I should be going,” I said, tossing the cigarette butt into the street. She watched where it landed and went to pick it up.
“We try to keep this street clean,” she said.
“Sorry, not thinking.”
“Still having the nightmares?” she asked.
I didn’t recall ever mentioning them in any interviews I’d given.
“Yeah, I know,” she said. She watched the expression on my face looking amused. “I’m Becca. I’m the local color around here.”
“I’m a witch.” She didn’t even brace for a reaction. Confident, I thought.
“And a psychic?” I asked.
“As it happens.”
“So what’s your theory on what happened to Sondra Wheatcraft?”
She tipped her head to the side. “They took her.”
“The spirits. You must have opened a portal, and they pulled her through. That house is on a power center, ley lines. That’s why it’s always had so much activity. Didn’t you know?”
Our research on this job hadn’t extended to the New Age belief in ley lines. As far as I knew they were imaginary lines that some people believed crossed the earth like unseen highways, and places where they intersected created vortexes of power. I remembered now hearing about how many old churches and pagan sites of worship in Europe were built on supposed nexuses. But we’d never bothered to look them up for any of our investigations, it was outside the scope of what Sondra had wanted to get involved in. She didn’t have much use for any New Age beliefs, even if we were in the business of trying to document ghosts.
“No,” I said, “I guess we overlooked that.” I didn’t want to offend this girl, whoever she was, by telling her I thought it was all crap. I hoped she wasn’t reading my mind right then.
“Well, I can help you get rid of the nightmares if you want. Call me when you decide you’ve had enough,” she said, handing me a business card.
“Thanks, I’ll think about it.” I put the card into my wallet.
I couldn’t get her out of my head for the next month. I kept taking her card out and looking at it, starting to dial the phone, then hanging up. I still didn’t believe in the supernatural or ghosts or witches or psychics or ley lines. But I did want an end to the nightmares, and going to a traditional shrink… well, let’s just say I wasn’t convinced they’d be any help. One day I found myself dialing and waiting for Becca to answer. I laughed when I got her voicemail. If she was such a great psychic why didn’t she know I was going to call then?
I arrived at her house at sundown a week later. We’d arranged to meet and see what she could do to alleviate the tension and guilt I felt. I wasn’t sure what I felt guilty about: maybe survivor’s guilt that it hadn’t been me that disappeared. I rang the bell, and glanced a little uncomfortably across the street at the house where Sondra had vanished. I felt like it was leering at me, like it knew something I didn’t. For a second I thought I saw the curtain in the window move, just a little. At that moment the door to Becca’s house opened and Becca appeared.
“What is it?” she said, looking past me.
“Anyone been in the house? I thought I saw something at the window.”
She stepped out onto the front porch, wrapping her shawl around her as she looked at the house. She looked almost angry. “No, no one’s been in there. Do you think you can handle going over there?”
“Why?” I didn’t want to, but I didn’t want to admit it either.
“I’m not sure, just a hunch.”
I shrugged, trying to look casual, but feeling like I was taking a bad dare in junior high. “Sure, let’s go. Isn’t it locked, though?”
“Let’s just say I have a key,” she said and stepped out, pulling her door shut behind her.
We crossed the road and walked up onto the front porch. It was broad daylight, anyone could see us going in. I just hoped we wouldn’t get arrested for trespassing, or breaking and entering. Becoming a felon wasn’t high on my bucket list. Becca had the door open in less than a minute, which made me wonder how she’d spent her teenage years.
As we entered, there was a strange odor that I hadn’t noticed here before, the kind of thing you’d remember. It was the distinct smell of rotten eggs. Sulfur.
“Whoa,” I said as the realization hit me, “is there a gas leak?”
“There’s no gas to the house. It’s electric and oil.”
I remembered then the old oil furnace in the basement. As we walked through the rooms of the main floor, the smell seemed to come and go. I wondered if there was a window open, if the smell had just drifted in from outside. It was awfully strong in some places, unnoticeable in other spots.
“Did you hear that?” Becca asked.
“I could have sworn I heard music, a piano. There,” she said, listening. “Do you hear it now?”
I could hear it now, faintly. “Are you sure no one’s here? No squatters who might have a radio or something?”
She frowned at me. “Does it look like anyone’s been here? The dust is an inch thick.”
“I don’t remember there being a piano here,” I said, trying to recall everything I could about the house. The sound seemed to be coming from upstairs so after glancing at each other I led the way up to the second floor. The second stair I stepped on creaked, and the music abruptly stopped. If someone was in the house they knew we were there now. But Becca had been right, the thick dust was undisturbed. As we got to the top Becca froze. I turned around when I realized she wasn’t behind me. “What’s wrong?”
I saw her swallow hard, like she was trying to talk but couldn’t make a sound, the way you do in a dream. Finally she rasped, “She’s still here.”
“Who?” I whispered.
Startled, I blinked then looked rapidly all around. “Where?”
“Not sure. Somewhere.”
Becca seemed frozen in place. As I turned and looked down the hall I saw a shadow cross the floor in one of the bedrooms. I couldn’t see into the whole room from where I stood, but it was clear someone was in the house besides us. I flashed through fear, anger, confusion, and belligerent bravado in the span of a second. This was crap, I was going to find out what the hell was going on. I strode toward the room where I’d seen the shadow, knowing there was no other way out for anyone in there. I flung the door open, and gasped. In what had been the former owner’s daughter’s bedroom sat the long missing Sondra.
“Sondra!” I shouted at her. She was still dressed in the same clothes I’d seen her in the night she’d disappeared. A sick feeling washed over me, as if the whole room had started to spin and shift. The woman on the bed, if it was Sondra, slowly turned towards me and then the world dropped out from under me. Where her eyes should have been were two glowing white orbs. I fell to my knees, as I felt myself being pulled backwards by the collar of my shirt. Becca had finally unfrozen and was literally dragging me out of the room. We made it to the stairs and I managed to get to my feet, and we clung together and ran for the front door.
We made it out, but my vision still wasn’t clear, or I was in shock. Lights flashed in front of my eyes. Then I realized they were the strobe lights of police cars.
I was doubled over with my hands on my knees feeling like I was about to be sick as a booted pair of feet came into view in front of me. Without looking up I said, “She’s in there, she’s still in there.”
“Who is?” The officer stood and waited.
Becca came over and stood next to me and laid a hand on my back. “The woman who disappeared here a year ago,” she told him.
After that all I recall is another interrogation, more police showing up to search the house again. It was like a repeat of the night it all started. Of course they found no trace of her.
A few weeks later I got a call from Becca. The house was being demolished, she said. The plot had been sold and a new owner was going to rebuild there. Something told me that wasn’t going to be the end of the activity.
You can say I’m a believer now. And I’m still having nightmares.