Chapter One: The Newest Kind of Ghost Town
The open sign flickered on and off across the street.
The dry, white cylinder of a cigarette seemed to suck the moisture from Charlie's lips, even as she sucked the smoke from its innards, rolling it around her mouth before slowly spinning it into the air. Her usually clear, open face looked almost sinister through the neon-lit haze - dark green eyes looked purple-black, short white-blonde hair turned into an inferno. This sight was particularly fearsome topping a frame quite literally cloaked in darkness. It was an unintentional cliche involving a knee-length black coat necessitated by weather, but frowned on by fashion convention, and a couple of admittedly-still-badass black cowboy boots. Luckily, she threw off the encased-in-night-feel a little with some shockingly turquoise tights, but the fact remained that even those didn't make her look anything less than nefarious in the light from the sign. She took another drag on her delicious little sprig of cancer, scowling.
Parker was late. Again. She was reacting badly to this, and yes - several heavy sighs were involved. Charlotte Hannigan was usually considered pretty tolerant of lateness, but when it dragged on for more than half an hour, saint-like patience began to take a turn for the mere-mortal and deadly caliber. They were supposed to be meeting for dinner with a potential client at seven, and had planned to meet up early to discuss a game plan. As it now stood, 'early' was now going to have to slip in at about eight minutes. And Parker was definitely going to have some bruises.
Hannah scowled as the man in question strolled around the corner with violence-inspiring nonchalance. Parker look like he could be easily beaten in a fight: he had features so gorgeous that he could have passed for a woman if he needed to, his doe-big brown eyes, slight build, and far-too-long-and-lustrous brown hair doing nothing for his masculinity. He played up that fact that he was, in fact, male, with his 100 mixed-Pacific-Islander-European-Native-American-completely-unidentifiable-features-of-the-modern-age and a cunning use of scenester headbands and nouveau-pirate-y accessories - the result was a surprisingly hunky, heroin-dance-chic rakish allure.
The most telling think about Parker, really, Chuck thought. Was that any time you had to describe him, you always used an embarrassing about of hyphens.
"'Sup, Chuck?" he asked, unceremoniously grabbing her purse and rummaging around in it.
"Just because you dress like the East India Trading Company is about to string you up, doesn't mean you get to steal me plunder," Charlie said dryly, yanking her purse back and hitting him upside the head with it.
This was actually quite a task, as she was roughly 5'2" and Parker towered above her at 6'4".
"A man needs a cig!" Parker cried, scandalized.
"A man needs to be on-goddamn-time, you stupid..." she spluttered for one second too many and decided to drop it, continuing on in a mutinous grumble. "Never mind. Where the hell were you?"
"For your information, Ozzie O.," he replied, raising an eye at her incoherency. "I was securing us a job for after this one."
"Oh, great. Your forte. If this is another Halloween of '06 fiasco in the making, I swear to God..."
"It's totally legit, Cap'n," Parker shot off with a sloppy salute. "Bona-fide haunting, by the sounds of it. It's not our usual fare of hotels, but...kinda close, I guess. It's a new apartment building they built in the style of the original tenements. Fancier, obviously, but they noticed the creepy stains from the old building...totally recreated themselves in the new building. It's a fa shizzle creepfest, my friend."
"Please refrain from gangsta-fying our job lingo, 'kay? And we'll check it out, but I'm not turning into some supernatural custodian and cleaning up phantom spills. We want real phantoms."
"Alright. Now give me a cigarette before I bite your ear off."
"Fiesty," Charlie finally laughed, throwing one at him, followed closely by her Zippo as she stamped her own out underfoot. "Next time, you're buying."
"Deal," Parker articulated around the slender white speech obstruction he was currently lighting up. "And then you buy the Wrigley's so we can quit this respiratory death wish, right?"
"Oh, yeah. I'll get right on that." She rolled her eyes. "Now, the guy we're meeting tonight is kind of a special case. He doesn't want to control the 'hauntings' they've been having. This is purely documentation, no sage-burning or cleansings or exorcist contacts. A Hauntings&Metropolis, Inc. Seal of Approval, I guess. Should be in-and-out, one night."
"Just how I likes 'em," her business partner waggled his eyebrows at her.
"You aren't human. You can't be. This is the only explanation."
"Oh, please, sugar dumplin'. This is 100 real."
"That makes it worse."
They arrived at the Moroccan restaurant at seven o' clock, sharp, just as their client showed up. The place he had picked was gorgeous - set up as if it were a massive tent in some caravan of deliciousness. Rich tapestries hung from the walls, with more gilt thread running through them than Charlie thought possible to exist anywhere, let alone in one space. Low, polished mahogany tables sat on the floor, surrounded by overstuffed silk pillows.
There was a belly dancer.
Charlie was nigh overwhelmed.
Apart from the general splendor of the surroundings, it was a generally uneventful meal - the business portion of it was dealt with almost before they'd all settled into the plush floor cushions provided, concluding as their mint teas arrived, and most of the meal of deliciously spiced lamb was spent discussing the more vivid tales of haunting at this man's hotel.
"...and as people just lie there watching, at night in the room, as the entire scene of the wife receiving the letter and walking off the balcony onto the rocks below just...unfolds before their eyes. The woman is almost solid! And it's not just the anniversary of the event, this can happen up to twice a month. It's really something to witness."
"It sounds like an incredible experience," Parker replied, his usual rascal performance combed back into congenial professionalism. "Of course, the whole thing is really whether it'll happen while we're there, and if we can capture some real evidence. Footage, maybe, but more likely EMFs or sound recordings."
"Anything would really be a boon for advertising legitimacy," the man said excitedly. "The sheer number of stories helps, but being able to have some documentation on display would take us to another level. "
The group was finishing up the final course, a savory pastry, and Charlie put her fork down on her empty plate, looking up with a smile.
"Well, we hope we can help your business. We have some openings for all-night observation in the coming weeks, all weekend dates. Would you like a one-night consult, or a full two?"
The man looked concerned.
"Well, do you think you could provoke a response in one night? Do you think there would be enough information?"
"Well," Parker spoke up. "It really depends on what kind of haunting we're looking at. If it's purely residual, there are certain factors we can introduce that would help bring it up, but there's no real 'provoking' that like you can with a more sentient-type spirit. But one night tends to be the standard. It's all how much level of insurance you want."
"Well," the man said, his face clearing up and brightening. "How about this. We'll schedule two days, next month, and if you gather adequate information the first night, the second night's stay will simply be a thank-you gift?"
"Sounds like a plan. Thank you so much, sir," Charlie extended her hand and they shook on it. "We'll be getting in contact with you soon. Thank you for the meal."
"My pleasure. Good evening."
And with that, they took their leave.
The second they were out of the restaurant and into the air, Parker burst into giddy laughter, running towards the corner and away from the man.
"Did you see his face?! AAAHHH! He's like, forty-seven and he looked like a twelve year old boy with a new Matchbox car. Oh God. Oh God. I bet he plays with electric trains. Please, please, Charlie...please bet me money on this. Just this once. Oh God."
Charlie laughed and threw him off her arm, where he was clinging in gleeful desperation.
"As much as it pains me to refuse - no. But if we see a single electric train in that bed and breakfast, tell you what - I'll give you a bonus."
"How is that any different from you giving me money for it on a bet-basis?" Parker stared at her, suddenly sobered by this bizarre logic jump.
"Because," she said simply. "That way, you can still win, and I...um...don't lose?"
"You," he responded in kind. "Have got a serious problem."
"This is probably true." Charlie stopped on the corner and rummaged in the wide crevasse of her purse for some spare change. "By gum, I need bus fare. Parker, could you spot me?"
"Yeah, yeah..." Parker's usually ethereally elegant face crumpled into a look of almost pained concentration. "You have got to get a pass, m'dear."
"Go ahead. Tell me this again. See what it gets you."
The glare she directed at him indicated that what it would get him would not be pleasant.
"Or continue to squander your business associate's spare change in reckless public automotive abandon. Your call."
"My call indeed. I'm going back to the office to schedule. You hittin' ye olde dusty trail?"
"Yeah. I think I'm only a couple streets over from here anyway, so here is where I leave you. I'll see you tomorrow. Eight?"
"Hm. A little earlier if you can handle it. I need help getting the new equipment together and inventoried, and you need to talk to me about this tenement haunting situation."
"Good call," Parker nodded. "Um. I'll just see you as early as I can. Try to sleep sometime tonight, eh? I don't want to be the only one not passed out during the scintillating process of inventory."
The great mechanical whale of a bus chose that moment to lumber up to the corner stop, screeching to a halt beside Charlie with a wind to rival the very fury of nature. She stepped aboard and shot a look backwards at Parker.
"See you early tomorrow. Early tomorrow."
"You're killing me, Hannigan."
"REALLY GODDAMN EARLY."
The last thing she heard from her buccaneer of a buddy was a strangled cry as the bus doors creaked closed.
There was no one else on the bus, apart from the bus driver, a man named 'Whit' who appeared to harbor a deep-rooted desire to be Samuel L. Jackson, going off of the outfit he was wearing. Charlie half-expected him to shout something about snakes on the bus at any moment. Half-dreaded, but half-expected, too.
She relished taking the bus sometimes. Once you hit the level of window-staring meditation where you could ignore the smell of urine and old coats, it was an ideal place to take in your day.
Or, in some cases, examine your life situation.
Here you are, she thought. A twenty-three year old living in your offices, running a corporate ghost hunting establishment. ...somehow, I think Gran is still gonna ask what you're gonna do when you grow up next time you see her.
Most people didn't even know what her company, Hauntings&Metropolis, Inc. even did. She had started it up after traveling to the East Coast after graduating high school. She hadn't realized until then the high amount of bed and breakfasts, motels, hotels, plantations, and old farms reeling in the customers by claiming they were inhabited by spirits, victims of hauntings. But so few of these claims were substantiated in any way - customers spooked by creepy tales were likely to think their own hair falling down by their face as they tossed and turned was moved by the chill hand of some fell ghoul. After a lack-luster stay in a purportedly cursed room in a haunted house, she decided to take up her own little ghost-based business enterprise. She set up Hauntings&Metropolis, Inc., a company built first to test purported claims of ghost activity, and secondly, to identify haunting types for buildings in which they were unwelcome and give options for disposal, cleansing, exorcism, and the like.
Parker. He was an unexpected addition, though a generally welcome one. She had met him at a community college in Portland - the same place she had stumbled upon night-classes specifically set up for those with an interest in tracking down and documenting the otherwise-deceased. His interest in ghosts grew from early childhood - a great horror movie aficionado, the movie Poltergeist had profoundly affected the form of his childhood boogie-man. He not-so-sub-consciously wanted to prove that poltergeists were subject to his spectral-Conquistador whims. Charlie's speciality was detecting spirits. Parker's was dispelling them. After they completed their series of ghost-hunting courses, it seemed like a good idea to partner up and track them as a profession.
The bus screeched to a stop at the blazing crimson beacon of a red light, and Charlie realized she had missed her stop. A loud curse fell from her lips as she jumped to her feet and ran up to the front.
"I know it's not generally smiled on, but do you think you could let me off here? I missed the stop two streets back, and I really don't want to have to navigate back, bus-wise." She put on her most concerned-looking little girl lost face, and hoped for the best.
"Oh, honey bee, go right on ahead," Samuel Jackson 2 smiled back. "I wouldn't want a pretty girl like you to be out on the streets any later than she has to be. Isn't safe!" He swung the door open, and Charlie leapt out onto the pavement.
"Thank you so much! Have a good night! You're a godsend."
"You, too, sugar." He grinned and shut the doors with a wink.
"...also creepy," she grimaced, pulling her jacket tighter about her and jogging lightly back up the street.
Slowly, the black and looming forms of the buildings surrounding her became the all-too familiar street she both worked and lived on - and the ever-lit front lights of her little establishment greeted her with a twinkle. It was a squat little brick building with a broad glass font, Hauntings&Metropolis - Corporate and Private Spectral Detection and Dismissal emblazoned across the shining front in broad black lettering. Two mannequins stood in the window in Holmes-type trench coats, complete with hats and pipes. Globes of light dangled from the ceiling around the blank, white pair as they stared eyelessly through magnifying glasses at them.
It made them seem a little like a kitschy clothing store, but it painted a bit of intrigue for their storefront, and definitely brought in some word-of-mouth advertising, so Charlie didn't think too much about it. She pulled her keychain out of her purse and unlocked the glass door. She turned and pulled down the massive metal-chain gate in front of the store for the night before walking across the threshold and locking it behind her, finally relaxing.
As exposed as it seemed, she was home.
To her left, a small circle of plush, antique couches and chez lounges huddled around a mahogany table covered with reading materials. The rest of the room held four desks, separated by massive wooden bookshelves. Sleek silver laptops rested atop each desk, mostly obscured by papers and books. The mix of paper clutter, thick tomes, old wooden bookshelves, and stream-lined office technology painted a very hodge-podge picture, that nevertheless had a mish-mash charm.
Desk one was hers, and the one next to it - thankfully sectioned off by a long, tall bookcase - was Parker's. The other two were for Liza and David, two part-timers that lent their work to the firm free of charge - this was a hobby for them, not a profession. They tended to work the private residences more than the businesses, but for larger cases, they'd volunteer their time. Liza was the wife of a local businessman who'd hit it big in Japanese imports. The result of this was that Liza now had a lot of money, but practically no husband - he spent all his time in Tokyo and Nagoya, so she spent all of hers with the restless dead. Fair trade.
David, on the other hand, was something of an enigma. No one in the business really knew what he did on his own time, or what his other job could possibly be. He was in the office less than anyone else, coming in maybe a full week and a half out of every month, but he knew his way around technology better than any of them, and - rather suspiciously - knew a few too many languages to not inspire a few office fantasies that he spent his off time playing a real-life 007. Ever since a year ago, when he had talked to a former Soviet ghost inhabiting a stacking doll in a private residence, Charlie, Parker, and Liza had taken to calling his style the 'From Russia, With Love' school of ghost hunting.
David's was the most organized desk, followed by Liza's, Charlie's, and finally Parker's. Liza had gently suggested that maybe their desks should be moved to the front of the shop, to present a more cleanly front to new customers. It hadn't fallen on deaf ears - Charlie had spent the past two days rearranging furniture trying to come up with a more visually appealing scheme. The result was anything but awe-inspiring, and she had ended up pushing everything back into place.
She decided to leave it alone tonight, her last bit of energy spent from walking up steep hills for two blocks to get home. She made a beeline for a small door near the back. She set the security code next to the door, and entered it, walking up the narrow staircase it concealed to her loft apartment. Unfortunately, it also doubled as an employee break room - but the lack of total privacy was made up for in the amount of money she saved by only paying for one property.
And it wasn't a bad place, overall. It was big - this allowed for a pretty decent entertainment system set up against one wall - and since the place doubled as a break room, Charlie got away with writing it off on taxes as a business investment. Plus, it came in handy for going over case evidence. And you could play a mean game of Super Mario Smash Melee, but who was counting? All this, plus the new kitchen equipment (another tax write-off - merci, Uncle Sam) still left room for her admittedly lush double bed. Yes, she could live with having this as opposed to the usual mattress-in-a-corner vibe you would get from someone else roughly her age, living alone in the city. Someone like...say...Parker.
She snorted in a decidedly derisive and undignified way, flopping back onto said luxurious bed.
I won't be seeing him until noon, at least, Charlie thought, her eyes drooping closed as she snuggled into her comforter. Freakin'...moron...should...kill...neck...tendons...nnghh
And with these gentle thoughts rocking her into Nod, Charlotte Hannigan drifted to sleep.
Um. Hi. Well, this is the first story I've really set down to writing in a normal format for a really long time. I'm trying to write more often, and I figured having a story to work on would get that accomplished. I've never posted anything for anyone to read before, so I beg all pardons on the 'ohLordit'scrap' boat. It's not particularly well-researched, but I'm seeing if I can pull the wool over your eyes with witty and shifty characters. So! I hope you liked it, I'm open to any criticism, and I hope to post again soon!