Zeph asked for a ghost story. This is the closest I could get. I'm very wary of disappointing her. She has many winged and furry minions and all of them would probably happily kill me if she asked. -TC
"Please, mister? My granddaughter. Please. She left her cat with me. He wants to go home to her."
There's some rule, somewhere, which states that anyone who gets involved with things outside the normal will eventually be approached for their services as a detective. I think it was written on the back of a tobacco pouch and was signed 'Lord D'Arcy' and was found in Chicago, but what the hell do I know. So far, I'd been lucky. I was asked for help all the time, but not once in the years I'd lived in New York had anyone asked me to do what amounted to classic private detective stuff.
The woman in front of me was short, stooped, gray of hair and was carrying a very, very asleep cat. The cat was a dark tabby, still with a slightly kittenish mien; I put it at perhaps four or five years old - and appeared in perfect health. It was bonelessly sprawled in her arms with the insouciance that only a well-fed cat can pull off. I put my face in my hands, briefly. "Ma'am, why are you asking me?"
The small woman blinked behind narrow eyeglasses. "I ask nice boy in my neighborhood. He say to come see you. I bring cat because cat asks. Take subway all the way here."
I looked up again. "How did you get the cat past the guards downstairs?" I asked plaintively. I couldn't help it. I needed to know. I'd spent a few years working in this building, and I have to be insanely careful never to be seen carrying anything odd looking. Sure, we're right across from the World Trade Center, that might be part of it, but I swear they just treat it like a game. They once stopped me bringing in a roll of Japanese rice paper. I was going to put some up on my office walls so that the runes I was working with wouldn't end up requiring redecoration, but no, of course not. No rice paper. And here this woman was with a cat. In my office.
"They nice boys. They pet him."
I pinched my nose again. "And who is the boy in your neighborhood?"
"His name is Mario. He say you are the man I must see."
I stopped pinching my nose. Mario never messed around. He knew better than nearly anyone else I was friendly with - and that was, come to think of it, a depressingly small number of actual people - what it meant to give out someone's name. I'd never given out his, and that was the reason he trusted me. So far. "Mario sent you? Wait. Where is your granddaughter now? And how do you know the cat wants to go to her?"
"My granddaughter, she is dead two year. The cat, he talk to her when she with me; he talk all time. Then nothing. Then two week ago, he start sitting in window, talking to her again."
I looked at the woman. Then I looked at the cat. It turned slightly in its sleep. Its tongue was stuck slightly out of its mouth, and I swear it was snoring lightly. Mario, you're going to owe me, if this is what I think it is, I thought to myself. "Okay. Ma'am - what's your name?"
"Conchita Estrella Vargas."
"Okay, Senora Vargas. Let's go see your apartment."
That got me a huge smile. I stood up, took my overcoat off the rack in the corner behind my desk and surreptitiously made sure the Desert Eagle was still hung inside it before shrugging it on, making sure the gun didn't show. Sra. Vargas bustled around the desk, beaming, and thrust the cat into my arms. I caught it reflexively. It opened one eye briefly, examined the depths of my soul and the state of my karmic laundry, then rolled towards my chest so that all four legs were upright and went back to sleep. I sighed and led the old lady out of my office and towards the elevators. Two of the firm's employees saw us. One of them didn't manage to control a giggle. She got a moderately quelling look. The other didn't manage to control a smirk which had more in it than I liked. He got a dead cold look which seemed to wipe everything off his face other than fear, which (God help me) I approved of.
"What's-" (I checked, easy given the cat's position) "-his name?" I asked the grandmother, nodding at the cat as we waited for an elevator.
"Okay, Lalla," I said, scritching him under his chin, "let's see what we can see."
The cab dropped us off in the South Bronx. Conchita Estrella bustled up three stories of steps with me and Lalla in tow and stopped in front of apartment 4F, where she began jangling through an impressive set of keys. I waited and placated Lalla, who had decided that overcoats were too warm and required constant head scratching to compensate. After about fifteen seconds, a neighbor poked his head out of his own apartment and stared at me suspiciously until he saw Lalla. I moved back far enough to let him see Conchita, and he nodded and went back in. It was good to see there was a community in the building, at least.
When we made it inside Conchita's two-bedroom, Lalla began mewing and jumped from my arms to run over to the kitchen window. It let out onto the back fire escape. He jumped up onto the sill in front of it and began staring fixedly through the glass, meowing intermittently but continuously, with a few pauses here and there. It did, indeed, sound a bit like conversational Cat might. "There! She's there, you see? She must be!" Conchita moved to the window and peered through it worriedly, turning to look up at me for reassurance. I sighed.
You see, I know this sounds odd for someone in my line of work, but I don't believe in ghosts. I believe in zombies - I'd met Mario during a brief infestation of the damn things, in fact. I believe in golems; I'd had a run-in with one of them as well. But those weren't the spirits of humans; those were inanimate substance, bound together by the power of an Elder (or one of their agents) for purposes of their own. But I'd never run across anything I could identify as the life force, or soul, or personality, or what-have-you of a human who had died. Dead is dead. Unless an Elder decides to do something about it. And even then, I have no interest in getting into the theological discussion about what happened to 'you' in between the death part and the resurrection part. I prefer to just think of it as 'the machine was off.' It makes for a less complicated life, and mine is complicated enough.
Lalla was still staring at the window. There was daylight outside it, muted by the brick wall of the next building perhaps seven feet away. The cat was still making small chuckling meowing sounds, the sort of noises cats make when they're staring fixedly at some small prey animal or the actinic point of a laser spot. I reached over and scratched him behind the ears, and he purred and pushed his head up against my hand but never took his stereoscopic hunter vision off of whatever he was looking at. I leaned down to get my head near his level and peered through the window. All I could see was a fire escape, thickly crusted with decades of exterior paint coats which were a nondescript brown-black. Lalla turned his head to look at me briefly, then turned back.
"She would sit there, out there, when she was alive," said Senora Vargas. "I would hand her water while she read outside. Lalla would sit with her there." She sniffed, once, but that was all the concession to sorrow she was willing to make.
"When did your granddaughter die?"
"Two year ago. Her mother go home to the DR when she die, she can't stay in New York."
"How did she die? I'm sorry to ask, but it might be important."
She waved my apology off. "She have leukemia."
"What was her name?"
"Oria. Oria Vargas."
I turned back and slid the window up. I kept an eye on Lalla, but he made no move to exit; instead, his purr jumped up a couple of notches to 'clearly audible' and he closed his eyes in a slow blink, pleased. Careful not to disturb him, I awkwardly climbed up onto the sill and out onto the fire escape. The spot just outside the window remained stubbornly empty, at least as far as I could tell. I stared at it, Listened as hard as I could, and examined it every way I could think of, but it was just an empty fire escape. I shook my head and climbed back into the apartment. As I straightened from the crouch that had been required to get me into the window, though, I heard voices. As I looked up, Senora Vargas was standing with her back against the wall, tears streaming down her face and speaking Spanish far too rapidly for me to understand her. She was staring past me towards the door to the living room, and I turned to look.
There was a young girl standing in the doorway. Lalla was winding around her ankles, clearly ecstatic. She was perhaps fourteen years old. She was smiling at Senora Vargas, and had her arms straight out towards the old woman, inviting or waiting for a hug. I froze and stared at her, but she looked resolutely normal. Slowly, then, I straightened up the rest of the way, feeling like I was looming over the old woman and the girl, but they ignored me.
After a moment, Senora Vargas tentatively moved away from the kitchen wall, towards the girl I knew to be her granddaughter. She moved faster as she crossed the kitchen, and with a loud sob she threw herself into the girl's arms.
There was a thump and scream as she fell to the floor. Lalla yowled and vanished towards the apartment's small hallway. I hurried over and helped Senora Vargas back to her feet; she was howling in pain, but emotional pain, looking wildly around the small apartment. I gently set her on her feet, and she turned to bury her head in my chest with her arms locked tightly around my elbows and ribcage as her wailing continued. The girl had vanished, just gone between one moment and the next.
I rocked the Dominican grandmother and listened to her scream her granddaughter's name, and wondered what the hell was going on.
* * *
When Senora Vargas had calmed down, we both sat in the kitchen. Lalla had come creeping cautiously back in, and was now sitting on the kitchen table watching us. I had accepted the offer of a cup of tea, mostly to give her something familiar to do.
"Conchita, do you have a picture of your granddaughter?"
She looked up from her tea, confused. "You...you saw her."
"I saw someone, but I have to make sure I saw your granddaughter."
"That was her!"
"I know you saw her; I believe you. But I want to make sure I saw her."
Understanding dawned on her face. She stood and went into the living room, returning with a framed picture. "This is Oria!"
I took it, looked, and frowned. "How old is she in this picture?"
"Oh, she is younger, maybe seven? Maybe eight? Her mother take all her pictures from when she was older."
The girl in the picture could certainly have been a younger version of the fourteen year old I'd seen in the doorway. Something was bothering me, though. "When did you last speak to her mother...her mother is your daughter?"
"Yes, she is. I speak to her..." she thought. "Not since she go back home."
Soemthing was definitely bothering me. "Do you know how to reach her there?"
"I think...I think she is with her husband. They live with his family. I look for telephone." With that, she vanished into the back of the apartment. I was left to drink my tea and trade solemn looks with Lalla, who decided my stare was amateur-hour and began washing a paw. Eventually, Conchita came back with a slip of paper. "I no find telephone, but I have email."
"Thanks." I took it from her and put it into a pocket. "Conchita, had you seen your granddaughter before I came here? Or had you just seen Lalla trying to go to her?"
She looked like she was going to cry again. "I no see her, not until now. Now I not sure I see her at all."
"Well, you saw something, Conchita, because I saw something too." I stood, thanked her for the tea and gripped her shoulder for a moment. "I promise, I'll look into it. Mario can reach me. Can you reach him?" She nodded. "Okay. If I find anything I'll let you know." I scratched Lalla between the ears - he accepted the attention as his due - and left the apartment, heading back downtown.
When I got home, I sent a brief email to the address on the slip of paper, introducing myself as a friend introduced to Senora Vargas by Mario. I said that Conchita had been troubled by visions of her granddaughter, and asked if there was anything odd about her granddaughter's death that might now cause Conchita to be troubled or repressing memories.
The next day I received an answer while I was at work. I saw it come in on the laptop left permanently open on the side of my desk. I finished the phone call I was on, thanking the client, and then hung up and hurriedly brought up the email. Reading it took maybe thirty seconds, and left me with even more things bothering me. The email was from Jessina Guzman Vargas; Conchita's daughter and Oria's mother. She confirmed that Oria had died of leukemia; that wasn't the problem.
The problem was that, according to her (and the neighborhood newspaper clipping she had scanned and sent along) Oria had died seven years ago. At age eight.
I sat back and thought about that. On the one hand, it certainly seemed to answer one question - whether this was the ghost of a human. I'd never heard of ghosts aging after death. But that left even more questions in its wake. What the hell was it? And why did Conchita think her granddaughter had died two years before? Who was right? The email had said that nothing unusual had happened to Oria - at least, other than succumbing to the disease. It seems she had gotten treatment, but her diagnosis had been late, and the chemo hadn't helped. The email closed with information on where Oria was buried, and a strong hint that Jessina would prefer to be left alone with her husband and their second child, who they were raising 'at home.'
The implication was that she didn't want to hear from Conchita, but there was no indication as to why. I could guess, though - if Conchita had been living under the delusion that her granddaughter was still alive, for example. It could also explain why Jessina had been able to write this email, and known to send the article with it - it wasn't the first time she'd been asked if her daughter was really dead.
I finished the workday. At around six o'clock, I reached into my credenza and brought out an emergency bottle of Ardbeg 17 - the old stuff, from a cache of what was once twelve and was now down to four bottles that I had in my apartment plus this one. I looked at how low it was, reflecting glumly that there sure seemed to have been a lot of emergencies in my life, and poured a stiff dram into a tumbler.
Sitting at my desk, with my feet up on its worn but smooth expanse, I sipped the golden fire and thought about the problem. I couldn't really see myself leaving this situation alone - if what Conchita and I had seen wasn't a ghost, and if Conchita really did think her granddaughter lived on for years after her mother swore she'd died, then something was going on that I had to unravel.
* * *
Most people these days start their research on Google. I do too, when I have a specific question. But when I need to know about the habits of the Elders, generally I go talk to a few of them. It may not be quicker, but it's certainly more reliable. I started where I usually do, at the Cafe at Grand Central, talking to Baba Yaga. The evening commuters swirled across the main lobby floor below while I worked on a Laphroaig. After a few minutes there was a lull and Baba Yaga came over, shrinking down into her Grandmother aspect as she approached. "Well, well, boy."
"What brings you to see me? It's not Wednesday." (I usually made sure to see her at least once a week, if I was in town, and Wednesday had become the unofficial day).
"I had a question, Baba."
"Ah, a question. Of course. Ask, Michel."
"What Elder would want to take the place of a woman's granddaughter? One who was dead? And then spend years with her, appearing to age normally, before 'dying' again?"
Baba Yaga frowned. "The child was not replaced as an infant?"
"No, Baba. The child, I believe, died at age eight. Her mother remembers this, and left the country. But for some reason the grandmother, her Baba, remembers the child dying at age fourteen - in the same way the mother remembers, but later."
"That is unusual. How did you come to hear of this?"
I grimaced wryly. "The grandmother came to my office with her cat, whom, she said, was trying to return to her dead granddaughter. I went to her apartment, and while I was there, the granddaughter appeared. We both saw her, aged fourteen. Then she disappeared before the grandmother could touch her. The cat saw her, both before we could and while we saw her too."
Baba Yaga went to make a cosmopolitan for a tired-looking office worker. I saw the supermodel aspect move away with the credit card slip, look at the tip the woman had added, and move back to wave her hand over the drink. As Baba moved back towards me, I saw the woman sip the drink and immediately straighten up slightly, her posture lifting unconsciously. "What did you do for her, Grandmother?"
"She is ill, and she worries about her son. But even with this, she tips well - and so her son will improve, when she hugs him tonight."
I smiled, glad of the answer, for I knew Baba Yaga had done it from a sense of karma rather than a spirit of generosity. I had seen her deliver balance here before, and by no means was the outcome always cheerful.
"In any case, Michel, all I can advise is that you determine where the family arises from. This may help."
I thanked her, knowing that to press for more information would be not only rude but certainly risky, and left the cafe. I tipped well, as always - but knew that in my case, it was my duty; such largesse couldn't buy me any favors.
The other three Elders I spoke with were even less helpful. Apparently, had the child been replaced at birth, there were several relatively powerful and thus likely mythforms that might have been involved, but none of my contacts was willing to evince an opinion about the replacing of a child of eight - moreover, one which was already known to have died. So, with only these scraps of information to help me, I fell back on mortal resources and went home to where I had a large-screen monitor and Google. And whisky.
Before I really got started, though, I did what Baba advised. Instead of looking for a mythform that fit the case, I instead tried to backtrack Oria's family. Using the email address I had for Jessina, I found a moderate-sized family business in San Cristobal, which gave me a foothold into her husband's family. Hers was more elusive - Conchita hadn't given me much information, and Vargas was just too common a name to offer much of a lead. But, an hour later, following a trail that lead through several email accounts and matching accounts on geneology websites, I discovered that the husband's family led back to a family named Velasco, and that family had emigrated to the Dominican Republic from the Iberian province of Asturias.
That was interesting, because Asturias had its own baby-changer myths. I made some notes and went to bed.
The next day I called my partner to let him know I would be in the office late then went out, making a stop at a grocery. Carrying my purchases in a plastic bag, I took the subway and a bus back to Conchita's apartment. She answered my ring and let me in. When I had finished hugging her, and scratching Lalla under the chin, I looked around the apartment and was relieved to find that the living room did indeed have a fireplace. It was grated over, and hadn't been used in decades, but it certainly made it more likely that my plan would succeed. From the bag, as Conchita watched with silent intensity, I took two dozen eggs and cracked them carefully into the sink, retaining their shells. These I placed back in the fiberboard egg containers. Then I moved into the living room and placed the eggshells around the tiny decorative hearth.
"Conchita, do you have a big candle?"
"Si!" She nodded vigorously and moved into the bathroom, where I could hear her rummaging in a cabinet beneath the sink. I took five small flowerpots out of the bag and arranged them around the fireplace as well, moving a few eggshells into each. When Conchita returned with the candle - I was happy ot see it was a very wide cylinder, unused - I asked for her forgiveness before taking hold of the grate in the fireplace and pulling. It made a groaning noise and moved slightly. I looked at her for permission; she nodded, tears starting. I wrenched at it again, and after a few more tries one edge came free. I pulled the grate out and laid it against the wall, then put the candle in the fireplace and lit it with my cigar lighter.
Surveying my preparations, I nodded, then moved into Conchita's bedroom. Lalla was lying on the bed. When I came in, he lifted his head and looked at me. I looked back and opened my hands on the bed. Yawning, he stood and wandered over, then flopped down across my hands in the perfect position for me to lift him to my chest as Conchita had brought him to me. Smiling despite myself and the state of my nerves, I went back into the living room. As we entered, Lalla stiffened and began to stare fixedly at the fire escape outside the window, on the same wall as the kitchen next door. I turned off the room lights. There wasn't that much light from the windows since they faced another building, and Conchita had window shades drawn down.
After a few minutes, Lalla yowled and then began to struggle, so I let him down. He dashed over to one window and lifted a paw to begin scratching against it. I moved up behind him and unlatched the window, sliding the lower pane up, but rather than jumping out, Lalla instead retreated into the living room, still staring at the window. I waited. Conchita drew in her breath, and at the same time, I saw a flickering shape moving towards the candle in the fireplace. I watched, unmoving, and it stopped in front of the small diorama I'd laid out, its shape firming up and solidifying into the girl I'd seen before - Oria at, perhaps, fourteen. She had been a slight girl, with light brown hair and a heartbreakingly beautiful face, even at an age when all girls carry the same immortal beauty.
After a few moments, she was completely solid. She turned to face us - face me - and said the words I'd been hoping I would hear: "In the hundred years since my birth, I've never, ever seen so many eggshells by the fire!" She smiled at me as she said this, somewhat sadly, and Conchita looked at me with a confused expression on her face. I continued to look at the girl, my face as stony as I could make it. We looked at each other for a few seconds, and then I nodded towards Conchita. The girl's expression became somewhat resigned, and she turned to the old woman. "Abuela, I have to go away now."
Conchita nodded, crying. "And will you go home, Golden One? Or..."
The girl moved to her and laid a hand on her arm. I saw Conchita flinch, then reach to touch the hand, indicating that she could feel it. "I will go home, Abuela. To our Father."
The old woman closed her eyes and flung her arms around the girl, who hugged her back while looking at me over her shoulder. I nodded again. When they broke apart, the girl kissed the older woman on the forehead and then turned to me. "I'm sorry."
"You haven't done anything unforgivable," I said. "Yet."
The girl looked around, then her eyes flashed. The light changed. I looked around as well and saw that Conchita and Lalla had stopped moving, their eyes glassy. I looked back at her. She returned my gaze, lifting her face towards mine. She was growing younger, moving back towards the eight-year-old in the picture. "I can't take away the memories," she said, gesturing to Conchita.
"Then make sure she has happy ones to close them off with," I said, my voice rusty and near a growl.
The girl turned back, touched her fingers to Conchita's forehead and closed her eyes and then said four words, words I couldn't hear despite their booming volume. I felt the vial holding the Waters of Life and Death shift uneasily at my chest as the Power rippled through it, and then the girl was gone and Conchita was crying, holding her hands to her chest.
I sat her in a nearby armchair and let her finish the grief she hadn't been given a chance to let out. Lalla looked at me until I returned his gaze, then (I swear) he nodded slightly and walked out towards the bedroom. When Conchita was done crying, I made her a cup of tea and let her explain to me that her granddaughter's ghost was at peace, reflecting that this was probably the best I could hope for, and wondering if I would try to explain it to her daughter. Without knowing more, I couldn't tell if that would help or hurt. I'd have to ask Mario.
Then I gave her my telephone number and took my leave. As she hugged me goodbye, I looked over her head to see Lalla come out into the hall and sit on his haunches with his tail around his feet, watching.
And just as she let me go, the girl appeared behind her for a second. She smiled at me, with pain in the glance, and then her appearance started to flicker. She went from eight to fifteen to an apparent age of around twenty, then thirty, then forty, and in less then two seconds was a near match for Conchita, who couldn't see her. She held my eye as it happened, and then cocked her head and vanished from sight.
I left and took the train back to Manhattan.
It wasn't until I'd gotten home that I realized the problem with the cat.