Possessing the power of psychometry has meant a life of petty crime and failed relationships for Simon Canderous, but now he's gone over to the good side. A recent recruit to New York City's underfunded and (mostly) secret Department of Extraordinary Affairs, Simon's learning his way around mazes of red tape, office politics, and the basics of paranormal investigation. But it's not just the paperwork that has him breathless...
After Simon spills his coffee on (okay, through) the mysterious ghost of a beautiful womanwho doesn't know she's deadhe and his mentor decide to track down her killers. But Simon's not at all prepared for the strange and nefarious plot that unfolds before him, one involving politically correct cultists, a large wooden fish, a homicidal bookcase, and the forces of Darkness, which kind of have a crush on him.
My cell phone vibrated to life in the pocket of my brown suede coat and I nearly jumped out of my skin. The last thing I expected in the pre-dawn hours was a phone call on my private line. I pulled it out and checked the display.
Connor Christos was my Other Division mentor. He specialized in working with ghosts, but was surprisingly not a part of the Department of Extraordinary Affairs' Haunts-General Division. They took more of a ghost-busting approach to their work, while Connor was more of a spirit spotter and ad-hoc psychologist to the lingering undead, when his lack of patience didn't get in the way. Why he was calling me this time of night, I had no idea.
I flipped my phone open and was greeted by an earful of static.
"Simon!" Connor called out through the choppy signal. "Did... wake...ou, kid?"
"Don't worry," I said. "I was already up."
There was desperation in Connor's voice. The signal on my cell phone continued to break up. It sounded like listening to an old-time radio as it was being flipped through a variety of stations.
"Need... help. Can you meet... University... Seventh?"
Maybe it was the bad connection, but I thought I could hear nervousness in his voice and I didn't like it. Usually he was the calm and collected one.
"University and Seventh?" I repeated. "Yeah, I'm up on Seventy-Ninth, but I can be down there in about ten minutes. Traffic should be light."
"Thanks, kid," he said, "and hurry." The static rose once more and the line fell dead.
Something strange was brewing and a horrible feeling began building in the pit of my stomach. I needed to get moving, but the shady antiques dealer was still taking his sweet time finishing his packing job.
"Can you bubble wrap it?" I asked. "And hurry up. I'm packing for battle."
After I hung up with Connor, I jumped a cab and headed downtown. Thirteen minutes later, the cab dropped me off at West Eighth and University and I headed toward Washington Square Park. I looked for signs of Connor, but didn't see him. When I came across a small crowd of drunken late-night tourists fleeing towards Union Square, however, I figured I was on the right track. They jostled their way past me, and I lifted my shopping bag over my head and out of harm's way. A clamor of footsteps and the crash of metal came from the alley between Sixth and Seventh, and I ran toward it while the last of the tourists snapped a few quick pictures.
The alley was filled with a weak yellow light from high overhead and I slowed as I followed the sound, partly out of caution but also because the last few blocks had winded me. I followed the alley along another fifty feet before it turned right. I rounded the corner and found Connor standing a few feet away with his back to me. Something stirring farther along in the darkness had caught his eye. At my approach, he turned and held a single finger to his lips. His muss of sandy brown hair looked more unkempt than usual and there was a strange white streak an inch wide in it that hadn't been there the last time I'd seen him.
"What happened to your hair?" I whispered. Then realization dawned. "You've been skunked!"
"You're kidding," Connor said with an almost schoolboyish glee in his voice. He tugged at his hair, trying to pull it far enough forward to see for himself. "Really?"
"You're excited about it?" I asked. "Makes you look older."
"Course I am," he whispered back, beaming with pride. "You know it's something special to be skunked, kid. A mark of prestige in the Department. It means you looked the devil in the eye and lived to tell about it."
"That's comforting," I said, feeling for the retractable bat hanging from my belt. "So now you're in their elite little Hair Club for Men?"
"They prefer to be called the White Stripes, thank you," Connor shot back.
"I know that, but they're sooo not hip enough to pull that off," I said, adamant.
Connor shushed me and sighed before changing the subject.
"You're late, kid," he whispered. There was a bit of venom to his tone. "And thanks for saying I look older. You're all heart."
I ignored his attitude. "What's the sitch?"
Connor turned back to the dark and unexplored section of the alley.
"I was minding my own goddamn business walking up University," he said, "when I heard a scream. It was hideouslike someone getting their back waxed. Then, out of nowhere, this spectral phantasm appears, streaking up and down the alley and scaring the souvenirs right out of a group of tourists."
I looked at the ground. Shot glasses with the Statue of Liberty on them, "I Heart NY" T-shirts, bootleg copies of cheap Asian porn videos, and postcards showing the New York skyline were scattered all around. There was also an odd assortment of broken clay pieces mixed in with everything, but they didn't look like any kind of tourist chatchke I knew of. I stepped carefully over the mess and moved closer to Connor.
"What's with all the broken pottery?" I asked. "Did someone drop their kiln?"
Connor shrugged. He looked distracted and there was a shortness when he spoke. "That was already here before the tourists dropped all their stuff. Maybe it has something to do with the ghost. I dunno. I'm too busy trying not to die right now."
"Sorry," I said, "but isn't this a job for Haunts-General? Ghosts aren't really my thing. They give me the stone cold heebie-jeebies. I'm not trained for this."
I eyed Connor's streak again and ran my hand through my own jet-black mop of hair, hoping it wouldn't meet the same fate.
"Don't fall apart on me now, kid," Connor said. "You had all the training sessions."
"Training sessions?" I said. I threw my hands up. "The Enchancellors haven't even covered apparitions with me yet. When I asked one of them about ghosts, they handed me a pamphlet entitled Ten Simple Ways Your Job Will Disfigure You! Nothing I've learned at the Department has trained me to tangle with anything like that. If it gets a hold of me as well, the other investigators will be calling us the Skunk Twins."
"Look," Connor said. "No one from Haunts responded and I was nearby..."
A clatter that sounded like overturning garbage cans interrupted him. I stared into the darkness, but in the pitch black of the alley there might as well have been an entire army of zombies riding in giant zombie tanks. Still, if it was zombies, I had at least read a pamphlet on them.
Connor spoke again, this time his voice dropping to an exasperated whisper. "I just happened to be at the wrong place at the right time, okay, kid? There were all these people standing around, snapping pictures of the damn thing like it's some goddamn movie star, so I start moving in on it. It must have sensed I wasn't afraid of it, because it hauled ass down this alley in the opposite direction, which is what I expected. At that point, I figured it could do one of two things: If it was aware it's a ghost, it'd just pass through an alley wall and I'd have lost it, but if it thinks it's still alive, it would feel cornered when the alley dead-ended. It wouldn't have anywhere to go and I could keep it at bay until Haunts-General showed up."
Something in the shadows moved closer, but I still couldn't make out what it was or even where it was. I felt pretty close to useless.
Connor signaled for me to move farther along the right side of the alley. Since he outranked me in the Department and had a hell of a lot more experience, I complied. Connor crept down the other side of the alley, but kept whispering.
"I didn't expect this phantasm to make a break back up the alley toward me, though. Before I could react, it phased right into me, but I resisted its energy. This spirit isn't acting like anything I've ever encountered before. Something weird is up. Now it's cornered somewhere back here."
Keeping a noncorporeal being from passing through an agent hadn't been covered in any of the assigned reading, handouts, or company e-mails.
"It actually phased through you?" I asked. "What did it feel like?"
The thunderous sound of another trashcan overturning rang out. I jumped, hating myself for reacting like such a noob in front of my mentor. Connor didn't even flinch. He tugged at the white streak in his hair again.
"You don't ever wanna feel it, kid. It felt like someone running electrical current straight through me. It was like a billion fist-sized rocks pummeling my body all at once."
He tugged harder at the strand so he could just barely see the ends of it.
"Nice souvenir of a standard op," he sighed. "As if I didn't feel old enough! Well, at least I'm a White Stripe now."
Saying he felt old was ridiculous. Connor was only ten years older than me, although I don't know how I would have reacted if I'd been striped. Hell, there was still a chance it might happen before the night was through.
"We wrap this up soon," I said, mustering the little bravado I could, "and I'm buying the drinks, ‘kay? Maybe it'll cheer you up… old man."
Connor winced at my words and I started to laughbut quickly slapped a hand over my mouth. Luckily, Other Division had started me out with a pamphlet entitled
Witty Banter to Ease Any Paranormal Situation
. In unpredictable and potentially life-threatening circumstances like this, levity really helped an agent concentrate.
"Kid, this job is going to make me old before my time," Connor said.
"Oh, who are you kidding?" I said. "You'll be dead long before you get old! Now, c'mon!"
I took the lead and crept down the alley toward the weird crashing sound. Connor groaned and played catch-up along the opposite wall.
Something very close to me rustledmuch closer than I thought it would be.
"Incoming!" I shouted.
Something closer to living fog than human flew out of the darkness toward us, and it was only my foolish vanity that saved me. My hair, I thought, and back-peddled up the alleyway, narrowly escaping the phantasm's touch as a crackle of electricity from its clawlike hands passed inches from my face. The smell of burning ozone filled the air, and I shuffled farther away.
The barest hint of facial featuresdeep hollow eyes and a gaping mouth that hung lowfloated where the creature's head should have been. Its dead eye sockets bordered on hypnotic. This creature craved the life emanating from meI could feel itand it surged with great power toward me. No longer concerned about their breakability, I threw my shopping bag full of antiques at the creature, and pulled the retractable bat from my belt. With a click of a button, I extended it and swung wildly, but it did no good.
All I could do was stare. Through the ghostly form, I could see Connor standing directly behind it. He was fumbling something out of his pocket, but I had no idea what it was. I was too busy backing away to care.
As I continued, my foot hit something solid, and my arms pinwheeled as I fell. My ass hit the ground hard, and my palms scraped against the pavement. The wetness of the puddle beneath me soaked through my clothes and the clamminess chilled my skin. I crab-crawled backward as fast as possible but it was no use. This monstrosity was going to overtake me.
I waited for its chilling touch, but instead the overwhelming smell of patchouli oil washed over the area…and the phantasm's smoky form turned from spectral white to reddish brown. It stopped moving and froze in place inches from my face and I wasted no time scuttering out from underneath it. Connor still stood on the other side of it with an empty vial in his right hand. Tendrils of smoke were drifting like a net around the now-still spirit.
He shook the last of the vial over the creature. It wasn't moving, but that didn't make it any less intimidating. Connor stepped closer to examine it.
"I don't get it," he said, stepping back. "It's gone totally feral. Usually when a spirit lingers, the humanity in it begins to stretch, become almost cartoonish. I can barely make out the humanity here. I don't know what would do this to a spirit, what would cause that much degradation. Unless it has something to do with all those broken clay pieces..."
I grabbed one off the ground and handed it to him. He gave it a cursory once-over and slipped it into his pocket.
"Thanks," he said, circling carefully around the phantasm.
"Thanks?!?" I asked. "For what? I should be thanking you!"
"These things feed on fear, kid. And frankly, I'm too seasoned to go all weak in the knees, so I really couldn't get the drop on it all on my own, you know?"
I dusted the filth of the alley off me as I stood and moved to recover my now dirty bag of collectibles from a nearby pile of debris. The bag looked like crap from the outside but I hoped everything in it would look better once I was home. I was soaked through and pissed.
"So what does that make me in all this, exactly?" I shouted at Connor. "Bait? That's it, isn't it? You knew it would scare the crap out of me, feed off that, and totally forget about you, right?"
Connor shrugged and stoppered the empty vial before slipping it back into his pocket. "That's one way of looking at it."
"And what's another?" I fired back.
Connor slapped me on the shoulder, turning all smiles.
"Calm down, kid. You've been an integral part of this operation. It'll look good on your performance record with the Department. Think of itthe Inspectre might even grant you some sort of commendation."
"I'm not here to be your personal worm on the hook," I said, pulling away.
"I'm sorry, kid," Connor said with a hint of sincerity. "Really."
Connor leaned toward me and brushed his hair over his forehead. The new streak of white was even more pronounced now. "Look, I don't like how this went down, kid, or the fact that we're doing Haunts- General's work, but what are we gonna do? With all the budget cuts, Other Division picks up the slack. It's what puts the Extra in the Department of Extraordinary Affairs."
Connor was right and it really wasn't his fault. We were overworked and caught up in the red tape of New York City bureaucracy. I let go of my anger. After all, my hair had been spared. Who was I to complain?