Ever since I can remember I have lived in Taremum, said to be the most haunted city in the world. My friends and neighbours tell me that ghosts abound. I have to take their word for it. It was the same in the orphanage and at school. Other people would tell me that the ghosts were there; they would describe the ghostly matron making sure every one was in bed, the workman who’d fallen from the school roof or the lodger who’d never really moved out two hundred years ago. I see nothing, hear nothing, feel nothing. I have had policemen carefully ask me to move away from where I’ve been standing and then usher in a ghostspeaker to wrangle some big, bad haunt. On one occasion, the ghostspeaker brushed past the policeman saying, “She’s fine. It’s just worried about her. The real problem is down here, come on.”
It seemed an odd comment at the time but not so much now. It was one of the pieces that fell into place after I met up with my school friend Jill at our thirty year school reunion.
Back when we were in high school Jill had lived with her parents and siblings in the old family pile, Razafarian House, one of the most haunted buildings in the city. One day she invited me home after school. We were going to work together on a school project or some such thing. I remember we came in the front door and she asked me if I saw anything, was I sure I couldn’t hear anything, then she’d suddenly gone white and almost looked as if she was going to cry and took me straight in to our afternoon tea. From then on I thought she was much nicer. Before that visit she’d seemed to be one of the people who didn’t believe that I couldn’t see ghosts and kept trying to make me admit that I did. She became my best friend until the end of high school, I visited her home a lot and her family was very kind to me.
Towards the end of the reunion we were sitting down with coffee in a quiet corner when Jill said, unexpectedly, “I never did apologise for the first time I took you to my place, did I?”
“Apologise?” I was confused. “What for?”
“For trying to scare you.” She sighed. “I thought you were saying you couldn’t see ghosts to make yourself sound special, to compensate for no parents and the orphanage and everything. So I had some of our scariest cooperative ghosts waiting in the foyer for you that day.” She drank her coffee. “I thought they’d terrify you but you just acted like they weren’t there and they, they just hovered around looking at you. It was weird. Then,” her fingers tightened on her cup, “One of our really bad ghosts turned up, one of the dangerous ones, and he scolded me for being mean to you. He said, “She can no more see us than she would be able to see you if her eyes had been put out with red hot pokers and she can no more hear us than she would be able to hear you if her ears had been filled with molten lead. She has been so stripped of her cloth of glory that there is not enough to grow back – if any more had been taken she would have died. There is not enough left to her for us to either grab or feed on. It would behove you to show compassion if not mercy.” He was,” Jill added with feeling, “Sterner than my parents have ever been.”
I drank a little of my own coffee. “That makes sense,” I commented, “It ties in with some things that have been repeated to me over the years. Despite the language, that’s the most clear and succinct explanation of my...condition I’ve heard.”
“That was clear and succinct?” Jill was sceptical.
“It’s clearer than ‘extreme psychic trauma sustained in early infancy’ isn’t it?” I counter questioned. “It still doesn’t tell me how or why it happened or if it’s tied to my parents’ deaths.” I sighed. “But why didn’t you tell me this years ago?”
“I was ashamed,” Jill confessed. “And some of our ghosts told me it would be unkind to tell you how badly you’d been damaged. Whenever you visited a couple of them would always hang around you looking sad and our ghosts are a scare-the-socks-off-you bunch. It was very uncharacteristic of them.”
We left the topic then and moved on to other subjects, like husbands, children and absent friends.
We’d both married. She into the Kaztarika dynasty while I had wound up wed to the ghostspeaker who’d told the policeman that the haunts were just worried about me. That dear, sweet, stubborn bullet-headed man spent most of our first date explaining cloth of glory to me. Most people get their explanation from a ghost, he told me, and that makes sense because not only do ghosts see us wrapped in the stuff, they feed on fragments of it that break free and float around us in the ether – that’s why ghosts and haunts of all sorts hang around people. The nastier ones break and tear off their own bit - that’s what a psychic attack is. He says he was demonstrating one of their feeding techniques when he started nuzzling my ear and I still maintain that I only kissed him then to stop him tickling me.
We have children too, both of us, but although her eldest is a boy and two years older than my Cirilla and both of them are unmarried I don’t see us becoming grandmothers in common. Her Rurik doesn’t seem like the sort of man Cirilla falls for and even minor Kaztarika heirs look for more depth of family status and history than a police ghostspeaker and his orphaned wife can provide.
Cirilla has an interest in family history, something she developed while doing her degree. Her father’s family is easy to trace – the authorities who handed out the types of licences his ancestors held wanted to know everything about their licensees. My family stops with me. I have my full birth certificate, truncated death certificates for my parents and nothing else. Because their deaths are still, fifty years later, under investigation all their records are sealed and nothing else can be issued. Their personal effects are still in police evidence. I don’t have any pictures of them and I’ve never seen one – there weren’t any in the news reports of the time. It’s almost as if the story was kept low key on purpose.
Cirilla saw this as a challenge. She was not, as she told her father and I, interested in the details of her grandparents’ murder but in the family details the investigation was masking from us. Why for instance, she had asked rhetorically at my fiftieth birthday dinner, had I been put straight into an orphanage and not been placed with a family member or in foster care? She was convinced that with a few more details everything would be clear. I’d always assumed that my parents had no relatives, aside from me, but Cirilla was sure there was more to it.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when she rang me one morning and asked her to meet me in a coffee shop in the city. “I’ve got a late birthday present for you, Mum.” Her voice was bubbling over with excitement.
“Your father’s off shift today,” I told her, “Is it all right if he comes too?”
“Of course,” she sounded very pleased with herself, “I can’t wait for you both to see what I’ve got!”
We found Cirilla at a table up the back of the cafe shop, sipping a cappuccino and looking pleased with herself. A file sat on the table in front of her. The sort they release copies of official documents in. We sat down, said hello and she waved the waitress over so we could order our usual long blacks. When the waitress had taken the order and left the table Cirilla put the file right way up in front of me and said, “I got you this.” She smiled excitedly, “Go ahead, open it.”
I opened it up. The top page was a copy of a document request form. I’d filled one in of these myself, years ago for, and I checked the filled in details on the form, the same information over thirty years ago. The difference was my request had been rejected because of the ongoing investigation but Cirilla had received documents...
I turned over the sheet and two photocopied photographs looked back at me, side by side on the page. A man and a woman. So very young, they looked younger than Cirilla. My parents. Alive. “How did you get these?” I realised as I spoke that I was crying.
“Today’s the fifty year release date and sometimes,” she had the grace to look embarrassed as she glanced at her father, “If you get in early and push, you can get documents before they’re remarked not for release. Journalists do it all the time. I was there when the doors opened with the form already filled in and the emergency expedition fee. I was particularly careful not to flag that it wasn’t a closed file and I wanted,” she blushed as she glanced again at her father, “To get in and out before the classification people had even gotten to today’s release list.”
Her father glowered at her for a moment and then he smiled. “You have,” and he tapped the page just above my mother’s picture, “Your grandmother’s forehead and jaw.” Then a tightened note in his voice. “Those look like police id photos.”
I set the pictures to one side on the open cover of the file, face up. Underneath was another photocopied picture, this one taking up the whole piece of paper. It was of a baby, not newborn but no more than six weeks old, in a hospital crib with a feeding tube up its nose, a drip in its ankle and monitor sensors on its chest. I don’t know which of us made that sharp in drawing of breath sound. Cirilla put her hand over mine and squeezed it, “Mum, its all right, you got better,” she sounded as if she might cry, “You were so small.” I put that picture aside too, under the pictures of my parents.
Next was a copy of a formal statement identifying the deceased, a medical report stating that blood test had confirmed my identity as the child of the deceased, a copy of my full birth certificate and then my parents’ marriage certificate with both their birth certificates. More information on my family than I had ever had before in my life. “No death certificates,” my husband observed, “Nor a coroner’s report.”
“I asked for identifying information,” pointed out Cirilla, “Not the full investigation file.”
“True.” He put my birth certificate under my parents’ photographs then their marriage certificate under that. “Those pictures look like police identification photographs and we already knew your parents were both ghostspeakers. Ghostspeakers do things aside from work for the police, of course, but your father’s best man at his wedding was a Detective Sergeant. I think he, possibly they, worked for the police.” He paused for a moment. “Your mother’s maiden name was Rousselle. There are lots of Rousselles, they’re quite a well known family among ghostspeakers - they used to be exorcists for the Grand Inquisition. Her father was,” he looked surprised, “Glasan. That’s the main branch of the family and he’s still alive. You might be right, possum,” he looked at our eldest daughter with the sort of praising expression he’d given good school marks when she was younger, “There may well be something funny about the way your mother was put into an orphanage.”
“Thank you,” Cirilla made a subdued version of the same pleased wiggle she’d made at age six when praised for spelling test results, then, “What’s that strange ghost from the Document Release Office doing here?”
I turned in my seat to look. I couldn’t see a ghost, of course, but I asked, “Could it have come in with that tall man in the black coat? Perhaps it’s a haunt attached to him?”
“Mum,” said Cirilla, “That is the ghost.”
“Can’t be a ghost if I can see him,” was my immediate response.
My husband and daughter looked at the doorway and looked at me. My husband swore quietly.
What ever he was, he was coming to our table. I scraped my chair sideways so I could see him without sitting awkwardly. Other customers and the staff were recoiling from this character who ever he was and my husband was getting that hard going-to-a-fight look he’d had on his face the first time I’d seen him.
As a woman hurried to the door clutching her handbag the man in the long black coat spoke loud enough for the whole cafe to hear, “I’m sorry,” his voice made me think of scraping bone and shark’s teeth, “But no-one leaves.” He spread his arms wide and it was like seeing everyone in the room suddenly shift down into slow motion. Anyone on their feet subsided to their knees. I could hear the people nearest me, my husband, my daughter, the woman at the next table, fighting for breath. “If people will keep digging into my affairs, then I will have to keep stopping them. I thought the police had finally learned,” he looked at Cirilla, “Then you came along.” He laughed then, the nasty laugh of someone who was being thoroughly bad and enjoying it. “And so no-one knows it was me, all of you, man and ghost have to end.”
I looked at my husband. He was trying to act but he could barely lift his hand. Our waitress was sprawled on the floor, the woman at the next table knocked something over and it fell with a crash but everyone in the cafe was dying without a sound.
I suddenly realised that, in the middle of this horror movie, I felt fine. I pushed my chair away from the table and I stood. Not a problem. Black coat looked at me, its arms outstretched, surprise on its face. It, I was fairly certain that it was the right word, maintained its position but followed me with its eyes as I walked around it. “I will bet,” I said clearly, “That you can either attack me with your bare hands or you can keep doing whatever it is you’re doing to everyone else, but not both.” I made sure I was out of its arms’ reach. “So are you going to stop me or keep stopping them?” It was twisting its body to follow me with its eyes and I knew how that worked. I kept walking around behind it. At the moment it twisted back the other way I grabbed at a chair to bash the back of its head in.
That’s when I had what I believe to be my one and only interaction with a ghost. Instead of the expected chair, my hand closed on a metal bar. A nice heavy metal bar with a good swing to it. A metal bar that hadn’t been there when I looked. I swung the bar as hard as I could at the thing that had my eldest baby slumped on the table in front of her, that was taking my husband’s ability to breathe. And I swung again and again and again.
My husband had to stop me in the end. A simple enough task, he put his arms around me from behind and asked me to stop. The thing on the floor wasn’t going to get up again. The rest of the day was a bit of a blur after that. Lots of police and explanations and crying. I cried a lot.
The thing I’d killed was the thing that had killed my parents, that had almost killed me, all those years before. It was a predator, feeding on both the substance of ghosts and the humans’ cloth of glory. It survived by living in the shadows of perception, walking the world in a corporeal body but looking to (most) humans like a ghost, feasting rarely but so thoroughly when it did so that it left no survivors. This one had been picking off police officers for fifty years to keep its secrets – first the initial investigation team when it thought they were getting close then the cold case officers occasionally assigned the file. The police had actually realised that something targeted was going on. Some of the information blackout I’d encountered and not being taken into a policeman’s home when I was orphaned had been to protect me, to cut the trail between me and my parents and the members of my father’s family it had killed only weeks before my parents. The investigation into that mass death had traced a history of family disasters with unidentifiable cause of death every century or so with never a ghost left. It had been hunting them, feasting on us for years...
I hope it was unique, perhaps once a man obsessed with living for ever who’d found out how to become some sort of psychic feeder. Because if there are more, they are better at covering their tracks than this one.