Disclaimer: The characters and events in this story are fictitious. No part of this story may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form without permission of the author. Additional Disclaimer: Skylight Castle is based on a real place that no longer exists. Some liberties have been taken with the history and the names of the original owners have been changed.
"Well! That was quite a show. Almost better than fireworks. Very entertaining, Izzy. I give it four and a half stars."
"'Entertaining' says the man who can't smell anything," I grumbled, waving smoke out of my face and coughing. I peered through watery eyes to determine the amount of damage I'd done.
Small, irregularly-shaped marks dotted the floor of my living room. Wispy tendrils of smoke wafted up from a few of them – luckily, not enough to set off the alarm – and the smell made my lip curl in disgust. Good thing the floor was hardwood, I mused; all I needed was the smell of burned carpet to add to the stench.
"Did I get them all?" I asked.
"I think so," was the reply. "'Course, you let loose with the lightening bolts and everything kinda went white for a minute. I might have retinal scaring, just so you know."
I shook off the sparks crackling along the tips of my fingers and attempted to smooth my hair down, which always seemed to develop a life of its own when I did things like this. "You make it sound like I called down the heavens. It was hardly lightening. More like low voltage static electricity," I said, crossing the room. First order of business, clear the smoke and foul odor from the room before I choked. "And you don't have retinas."
"Yeah, well, if I did..."
I opened a few of the large windows taking up most of the wall space on the east side of the living room. Outside, the day was deceptively bright and clear, the waters of Lake Michigan sparkling in the slowly fading light. Goosebumps instantly sprang to my arms as a frigid, early spring breeze swirled into the large apartment. As the temperature dropped and the smell receded, I went to the hall closet and rummaged around until I found my Swiffer Sweeper, a bucket, and a large scrub brush. A pocket of warmth briefly engulfed me, tugging at a lock of hair almost painfully as I made my way toward the kitchen with the bucket.
"Cute, Ethan," I muttered, sweeping the errant strand of hair behind my ear. I dropped the bucket in the sink with a hollow thunk, adding a large squirt of dish soap before filling it with water.
A dry-paper rustle of laughter answered me. "Lucky you don't need anything special for clean up," Ethan said as bubbles began to mound. "That could get expensive."
I grunted my agreement as I hauled the full bucket out of the sink and carefully toted it back into the living room. I grabbed the Swiffer and scowled at the shiny puddles of what looked like wax on my floor.
"Figures they'd melt like crayons instead of burning into nice, neat little piles of ash," I muttered. A palette knife would work better, I thought, eyeing the quickly solidifying remains. I found the appropriate tool and then got down on all fours to start scraping. "Why do guecubu have to be so damn messy?"
"Well, since they live to annoy people, I'd wager they'd like to have one last go at pissin' you off in death," Ethan said. "At least they're not as bad as those skrzaks last month. You were cleaning up wet feathers for weeks. I still find bits of them in the front hall. Worse than confetti."
"What really annoys me is they keep coming back," I said. I scowled at a particularly stubborn patch of hardening goo. "Isn't there something I can do to keep them out permanently?"
A long silence answered me, but I didn't bother looking up. Ethan Cremont Dobaire was as insubstantial as they came. Having died sometime in the 1930s, he'd stuck around the place he'd once called home. Not for any particular reason, he just hadn't felt the need to move on.
"My mother, bless her soul, bitched all the time that I wouldn't amount to nothing if I didn't stop drinkin' and whorin'," he'd told me. "I can do without hearing that for the rest of eternity."
Except Ethan hadn't amounted to much more than what parapsychologists labeled as ectoplasm and EMF fluctuations. As far as I could determine, Ethan had gotten mixed up with a rather unsavory crowd during the Prohibition era. When he'd gotten in over his head, he'd gone to the authorities. Despite their best efforts, the police hadn't been able to protect Ethan from the men he'd squealed on – he'd been shot and killed just outside of his front door.
"It's why I don't do 'real," he'd once said after I'd commented on how he rarely physically manifested. "Nevermind that it takes too much effort, it's just not a pretty sight."
"There might be some kind of shield you can put up," Ethan finally said.
"Over the entire house?"
"I suppose you could just do the doors and windows," he said. "But that's not the only place they come in, you know. You'd have to search out each little crack and crevice...and do the chimneys," he added. "So, in the long run, you may be better off just doing the whole place."
"Has anyone ever tried this before?"
"Not to my knowledge. Your grandfather was brilliant enough to come up with the idea, sure, but he lacked the power to construct anything that large."
"How much will it take out of me?" I asked. The spots on the floor were slowly fading under my fierce scrubbing.
The air around me shrugged. "Not too much, I wouldn't think," Ethan replied. "If you can anchor it to the nexus, it should just run on its own."
I mulled over the idea as I finished cleaning. In theory, it sounded good and might actually work. I suspected I'd be dead tired for at least three or four days, but it would be worth trying if the shield powered itself afterward. Anything was better than scrubbing daemon remains from the floors, walls, and sometimes, if the little buggers had the consistency of water balloons, the ceilings three times a week.
"I'll have to do some research," I mused aloud. "I wonder if Ma – "
The temperature, which Ethan had kindly been keeping tolerable, suddenly dropped until my breath clouded the air in front of my face. I looked up, regardless of the fact I couldn't see anything, a small crease forming between my eyebrows.
"What's wrong, Ethan?"
"Nothing. Gotta go. See ya, love."
"What, you have a hot date or something?" I shouted into the now truly empty air.
I frowned. Ethan had been acting strange the past few weeks – as strange as a ghost could act, anyway. Every once in awhile, he just vanished, without so much as a by-your-leave, and sometimes wouldn't reappear for days. If I believed such a thing was possible, I would have thought he was...
"Scared?" I snorted and grabbed the Swiffer to mop the soapy water up off the floor. "What astounding logic, Izzy. Simply ingenious. A ghost, scared."
With a shake of my head – but a firm resolution to question Ethan when he rematerialized – I hauled the bucket of dirty water toward the front door. Carefully, I maneuvered down the hall toward the back of the house. The stairs were a bit trickier. I wasn't particularly big and, even though I was fairly strong, carrying the the large bucket was awkward. I did a sort of sideways shuffle down to the first landing, adjusted my grip and prayed to whatever gods who might be listening that I wouldn't misjudge a step and break my neck.
Or worse, I thought. If the water sloshed over and soaked into the runner in such a high traffic area...I shuddered to think what could happen if people tracked imp bits into the other apartments.
After making it safely down the stairs, I waddled across the mud room and ran into my next problem; how to manage the heavy door leading outside with my hands full of liquid daemon.
"Need some help?"
I let out a startled, and embarrassingly squeaky, yip at the sound of the low voice behind me. Craning my neck, I saw a figure standing in the shadows of the landing I had just left. A landing I didn't remember being quite so dark...
The looming figure silently made its way into the warm golden light filling the room and I recognized my new neighbor. A smile appeared on his face as he crossed the distance between us.
"Doing some spring cleaning?" he asked.
Usually when people talked to me, they had a hard time looking directly at me. But my neighbor caught and held my gaze, like a magnet pulling in iron. His eyes sent a zing of almost pleasurable apprehension up my spine, their depths promising something dark and wicked that I would most definitely enjoy.
"Uh," I said, intelligently.
His smile widened and his eyes dropped to the bucket. "Wouldn't it just be easier to get rid of that in the bathtub?" he asked.
I blinked. Followed the direction of his gaze. I tried to make a habit of not dumping supernatural remains down the drain. Gods only knew what it would do to the plumbing. But I wasn't going to tell him that.
"I...already cleaned the bathroom," I said. "Poor planning on my part, I suppose." I winced and shifted my grip on the plastic handle digging into my palms. The pain seemed to get at least a few of the nuerons in my brain firing again. "I'm sorry, I know my cleaning habits are fascinating, but I'm not going to be able to stand here all day with this."
"Let me get the doors," my neighbor insisted.
I murmured my thanks as I half walked, half waddled outside. As I dumped the contents of my bucket in a corner of the backyard, I sighed, wondering how long the burn and freeze would keep this batch of annoying little devils away...hoping they wouldn't come back until I came up with a plan to keep them out for good.
"...gremlins out from under my couch."
I jumped and whirled around. My neighbor, who I'd forgotten about, had followed me.
"What did you say?" I asked, my eyes narrowing slightly.
He flashed his perfectly white smile again. "Your cleaning reminded me I need to get the dust gremlins out from under my couch," he repeated.
"Dust gremlins..." No such thing...And then I laughed at myself. "You mean dust bunnies?"
My neighbor shrugged. "Potato, potahto," he replied, his smile still in place. "You can manage on your own from here?" he asked, nodding toward the doors. "I was on my way out."
My brain, dazzled by the smiles I kept receiving, desperately wanted to let rip another, "Uh." But I kept my lips pressed tightly together – I even managed to turn them slightly up into a smile of my own – and just nodded.
"Have a good day, Miss Burkhard," my neighbor said, waving as he began making his way across the back yard and toward the gate leading to the alley.
Being released from his attention left me feeling a little dazed and my thoughts stumbled clumsily around each other. "You, too," I managed to call, realizing that, for the life of me, I couldn't remember the man's name. And that was strange...I had an excellent memory, especially when it came to the people living around me.
I pushed the thought away as unimportant and made my way back inside and up to my apartment. After tossing the bucket and other cleaning supplies back into the hall closet, I started on the second order of business; dinner.
Twenty minutes later, my apartment smelled pleasantly like basil instead of scorched daemon flesh. Music filtered into the kitchen from the living room and I hummed to myself as I stirred the pasta cooking on the stove. Grabbing a wood cutting board and bread knife, I happily chasséd across the room and pulled a loaf of French bread from the refrigerator. Very little was better, I thought, than a good homemade meal after a hard day of –
The knife paused halfway through the thick loaf of bread and I tilted my head to the side, listening. Water bubbled merrily on the stove, the music paused briefly as the song changed. Outside, early evening traffic was picking up on The Drive, a siren wailed in the distance and a car alarm shrieked a few blocks away. My brow furrowed. I could have sworn I'd heard something...a faint –
– coming from the bedroom...
I narrowed my eyes and slowly made my way out of the kitchen, bread knife still in hand. Standing in the doorway of my bedroom, I listened for –
– that sound again. A slightly harried knocking coming from behind a short, narrow door on the wall opposite from where I stood. With a small sigh, I crossed the room and tugged the door open.
"Good grief, Iz! I thought you were going to leave me in there! You know I don't do well in small spaces."
"You could have just turned around and gone back the way you came," I said. The man pushing passed me and into my bedroom sucked in a deep breath. I sighed again and closed the door. "I suppose you want to be fed, hm?"
The corners of sparkling green eyes crinkled. "It's not my fault your vents connect to my place and I can smell everything you cook," he said.
"I suppose it's also not your fault you never go grocery shopping so you never have anything of your own to eat," I said, playfully cross.
"I brought wine?" he offered.
In the late nineteenth century, a wealthy businessman announced he would build his wife a castle north of the Chicago River. At the time, the land was the farthest thing from prime real estate, being little more than a barely filled in bog. But as with everything in his life, Prosper Dobaire was determined to have what he wanted where he wanted it. The marshland was filled in and construction began on a mansion that, when all was said and done, ended up costing Dobaire over a million dollars.
And it truly was a castle, even if in the miniature sense, with its Romanesque turrets and a tower complete with a spiral staircase. Embellishments dripped from every stone edge; the outer entrance still showed traces of once being gold-leafed. The front hall, a huge octagonal room, soared up three stories and was topped with a stained glass dome. The manse had forty-two rooms – some of which were done in historical styles – all with marble fireplaces, a ballroom, and at one time had even boasted multiple elevators.
Ethan inherited the house after the death of his parents. After his own tragic death, the house went through various owners – one of whom, in the 1940's, had the bright idea of splitting it into apartments in order to make money from the place.
But all the owners, and anyone who stayed in the place for any length of time, complained about strange occurrences. Furniture shifted without anyone touching it. Electronics turned on by themselves or didn't work correctly, even if they were brand new. The sound of footsteps or someone laughing came from rooms that were empty. The castle gained a reputation for being haunted and remained vacant for years. It became a rite of initiation for daring children to sneak through the yard and touch the door. Adults walked quickly passed it at night, trying to ignore their fears. Occasionally, someone reported they saw lights flickering and the silouhette of a person in a window.
Ethan, of course, was smugly closed mouthed about his involvement in facilitating those rumors.
In 1950, an offer for the property was made by a famous American hotelier. The plan was to demolish the building and put in an apartment complex that would house over 700 people. However, an eccentric businessman, one Alexandre Burkhard, known worldwide for purchasing buildings and houses with...unique...histories, outbid everyone by an outrageous amount. According to Ethan, Alexandre was a man who feared little and reveled in the unknown. The ghost admitted trying every trick up his invisible sleeve to get Alexandre to give up the property, to no avail.
So, the manse remained an ornate isle that slowly became surrounded by bulky high-rises, stalwartly facing the traffic of Lake Shore Drive. With Alexandre's charming personality and business savvy, people slowly began to rent the rooms already set up as apartments by a previous owner. He remained in the house until his death.
I had vivid recollections of playing in the castle as a small child. For reasons I didn't understand at a young age, my mother only reluctantly let me visit my grandfather. For my part, I just loved pulling up under the coach gate at the front of the house. It made me feel like a princess coming home from long travels abroad. The castle, riddled with nooks and crannies, was a child's dream playground.
Four years ago, after graduating from college, I took up permenant residence in the castle. I curiously explored as much as I could without intruding on the other tenants, trying to remember all the places I'd found as a kid. Much to my delight, I'd found one of those hidden spaces in my bedroom behind poorly erected drywall. Finding a hammer, I had pulled back my hair and torn the thin plaster down. Behind the wall had been a small oak door. And behind the door had been a servant's stairway, still as clean as if it had just been used last week. Flashlight in hand, I carefully wound my way down the narrow passage. I found a smoothly varnished door at the bottom that matched the one in my room. Without hesitating, I knocked. Loudly.
Noah Reece – my not entirely unexpected dinner guest tonight – had been surprised to say the least. It took a fair amount of convincing, but I had eventually talked him into not only letting a perfect stranger into his apartment, but a stranger with a hammer intent on damaging his high-priced living space. He hadn't been nearly as excited about the find as I had; he'd just sat forlornly on the floor, mourning his lost security deposit. I told him not to worry about it – he'd looked at me like I was crazy. It was a look I became used to over the years.
"Didn't your mother teach you how to cook?" I asked Noah over my shoulder as I walked back into the kitchen.
Noah shrugged and rummaged around in a drawer for a corkscrew. "My dad did, actually," he told me. "He was the chef in the family."
I made a soft hm of interest in the back of my throat and nodded when Noah showed me the front of the wine bottle for my approval. The label read Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc. In truth, I just had to trust his judgement it would go with dinner – it was all white, red, or boxed to me. He smiled knowingly and wiggled the cork out of the bottle.
"Food always tastes better when someone else makes it, though," he said, reaching above my head to pull two glasses from the open-faced cabinets. "Don't you think?"
"I wouldn't know. No one ever makes dinner for me," I said, pointedly. "You guys know you have kitchens in your apartments, too, right? That they have fully functional stoves and everything? Unless they've broken, in which case you should have told me."
"Is that what you want for your birthday?" Noah asked. "For Mason and me to make you dinner?"
I took the half-full glass he held out and shook my head. "Oh, no," I said, grinning. "I'd much rather go to another one of those fancy restaurants and eat on your dime again. Besides, you and Mace working together to accomplish something – especially in the kitchen – could end in a disaster my insurance won't cover." Noah chuckled and I took a sip of wine. "Oh, that's exactly what I needed," I sighed, feeling the way the alcohol warmed its way down into my belly. "Thanks."
Noah grabbed plates and silverware, and disappeared into the dining area to set the table while I put the finishing touches on dinner. When I brought the food out, I stopped and stared. I shouldn't have really been surprised to see candles softly lighting the room, giving it a cozy, romantic feel. I shook my head and chuckled.
"Nice touch," I said. "You should have been a romance author."
"Funny, my agent says the same thing," Noah replied with a grin. He grabbed the pasta spoon from under my fingers and began scooping pesto onto my plate. "I don't know, though. I certainly seem to make do with my articles on how to be a man's man."
"Speaking of men, have you seen Ethan lately?" I asked.
"No, he usually only torments me when you're around," Noah said. "Why? Did you guys get into it again? I'm not going to have to patch up another quarrel between you two, am I?"
I smiled faintly, twirling my fork through my mound of pasta. "No."
"Good, because it's more than just a little strange trying to talk sense into someone who's dead."
I snorted and nearly choked on a strand of spaghetti. "Yeah," I said, sarcastically. "Because that's the weirdest thing that happens around here."
Noah grinned and took a sip of wine. "What's up?"
I shrugged. "I'm not sure," I said. "He's just been acting...odd...lately."
"He's a ghost," Noah reminded me. "He doesn't exactly fit into the category of normal."
"You know what I mean," I said. "We – well, I was cleaning up after a small pest problem – "
"Guecubu seeping through the cracks again?"
I nodded, tearing off a chunk of bread. "Yeah. I figured getting rid of them all at once would be easier than trying to track the little bastards down. I had to lure them into the apartment – did you know they're attracted to peanut butter?"
Noah blinked. And then the corners of his mouth began to twitch up into a smile. "Like mice?" he asked.
I nodded again, absently this time. "Yeah, chunky rather than creamy," I said. "It took me three days to figure that out." I rested my elbow on the table, my chin in my hand, and stared blankly into the candles' flames. "It's too bad I can't just set out mouse traps to kill them," I mused. "It would save my floors from burn marks."
"Have you tried?"
"Yes." My mouth twisted into an exasperated line. "The little buggers are too clever. I watched as a few of them held the trap so it wouldn't spring as others collected the peanut butter. They aren't attracted to the poison in the other traps and the sticky traps, in my opinion, are just cruel. Even if they could starve to death, which I doubt, I feel better about getting them all in one go than making them suffer."
"You're such a humane daemon killer." I made a face, which made Noah laugh. "You could start setting them alight in the tower, you know," he suggested. "No one's going to mind a few scorch marks since they hardly ever go up there."
Noah laughed again and reached over to pour more wine into my glass. "What's Ethan have to do with this?" he asked, getting us back on track.
I blinked and shook myself away from mental musings on how to best exterminate supernatural pests. "While I was cleaning up, he just vanished." I paused and squinted at my plate before looking up at Noah with a wry grin. "I know it sounds silly, but he seemed really nervous about something."
Noah stared back at me for a moment. "What would a ghost be scared of?" he finally asked.
I shrugged and concentrated on stabbing a pea, relieved Noah hadn't told me I was being ridiculous. Not that I'd thought he would. "That's a good question," I said. "The only thing I think Ethan would be scared of is someone exorcising him."
"I thought only Catholics did that," Noah said. "And only in extreme circumstances."
I waved an impaled pea in the air. "The practice was around for centuries before Jesus," I corrected. "But Christianity and William Blatty made it more...public, even though the Church tries to keep it very hush-hush when performed."
Noah chewed a mouthful of pasta as he mentally chewed over the problem. "How long has he been acting this way?" he asked. "Just today?"
"No, it's happened a handful of times over the last few weeks."
"Same time every day?"
I thought about the question and then shrugged. "I don't think so," I said. "It varies. But he's never around in the mornings anymore to act as my alarm clock."
Which I was actually kind of grateful for – being woken up by a poltergeist was akin to having a ship's foghorn blaring through a very small space. I'd nearly had a heart-attack the first morning Ethan had come screaming through my room. The ghost, damn his eyes, had thought it uproariously funny to watch me, groggy and terrified, fall out of bed in nothing but a t-shirt and panties.
I'd taken to wearing earplugs and shorts to bed.
"So, what's changed in the last few weeks that might be bothering him?" Noah asked.
"I'm not really sure. I mean, almost everything that happens around here is on the unusual side," I said. "How am I supposed to pinpoint the one thing throwing an already temperamental ghost into a funk?"
"True," Noah said, nodding his agreement.
We ate the rest of our dinner in silence, contemplating the possible reasons for Ethan's mood swings. After cleaning up, Noah leaned against the kitchen counter and finished off the rest of the wine.
"You know, there's the new guy across the hall from you," he suddenly said.
I looked at him and blinked. The new guy? My mouth opened then closed it. Of course. How could I have forgotten about Skylight's newest resident, especially after having seen him just hours ago? His arrival was the most recent change in the past few months. All the other stuff – daemon exterminations, dealing with power fluctuations in the nexus – those were a constant no matter how sporadically they happened.
I worried at my bottom lip with my teeth. Aside from this afternoon, I'd only met the man a couple of times. He seemed nice enough, seemed normal enough...sort of. There was the small matter of that strange tingle of apprehension I'd felt when around him. And the fact that I never remembered his name, or even him unless reminded about him, was a little troublesome. But he wouldn't have been allowed in the castle if there was something wrong with him. So what about him would send Ethan into such a tizzy? If the only thing the ghost had to fear was being exorcised, then the only thing he would really be afraid of would be –
"You think we have a priest in the building?" Noah asked, apparently keeping speed with my train of thought.
"Or something worse," I said, my mouth pressing into a grim line.
Noah sighed and upended the empty bottle of sauvignon blanc over his empty glass. "I should have brought more wine."