I sat with the crime-scene photographs and the dead star of the show swaying above them leaching most of the light from my desk lamp and the warmth from the room. The ghost was a hulking, tattered thing with little memory of the person it had been in life and driven more than a little mad by its brutal exit. The taint of mildew, mould and rot saturated the air, as though I was standing in the middle of an old grave. As long as it didn’t have my name on it, I wasn’t too concerned.
I took off the dark glasses and studied it with more interest. There was a partial notion of a face: a snub nose so extreme it could have graced a shrunken head, and a sliding slant of facial feature that only just fell this side of human. This was what happened to the dead. Over time they forgot the exact size and shape of the flesh over-coats they had worn in life. Finally they lost all resemblance to the people they had been, spiritually decomposing in ironic homage to the way of the flesh. At the end they were nothing more than a plume of dirty smoke or patch of cold that you might feel as a shiver down your spine if you walked through it, but nothing more. The emotions were always last to go, stubbornly clinging on like dim-witted hangers-on after the main attraction had upped sticks and gotten the hell out of Dodge.
But some ghosts had a compelling reason to hang on delaying the decay and I was looking at a prime example. In life, it had been a woman called Amy, murdered in one of the most baffling unsolved cases I’d ever come across. From the evidence the police did manage to find, there was no avoiding the conclusion that death had been a release. The marks on the bones showed that flesh had been cut raising the grim possibility it had been done while she was still alive. The bindings found with the pitiful remains, told a dismal tale of captivity for at least a few days, maybe a week. A rusty hook and three skewers with traces of old blood had been found in her lonely cellar grave leading police to the conclusion Amy had been tortured until they had ground her down into so much meat. These weren’t empty guesses: the police had seen this type of murder before, not often, but enough know a thing or two about this type of predator and what they got off on.
So no, it had not been hard to work out why the ghost formerly known as Amy had decided to stick around.
The question was, what was it going to do now?
On the face of it you’d think there was nothing to fear from what was after all only a collection of spectral filaments. And nine times out of ten you’d be right. But the unadulterated rage that held this spectre together made it the exception that proved the rule. The fact that I had summoned it by using the photographs and some of Amy’s old clothes supplied by her grieving family didn’t protect me.
“Amy,” I murmured, “listen to me.”
The ghost howled, more sense than sound of an emotion so intense my vision began to spot, colours flashing at the periphery, and I could feel the first stirrings of a monster migraine. It lowered its partially composed face to mine, the intense cold raising the hackles on the back of my neck, and began to swirl around the chair I sat in, faster, faster, creating a thick, choking blanket making it impossible to breathe without extreme effort.
“Amy,” I whispered, traitorous tongue unable to shape the clotted air into meaningful sound. “Ben and Sarah-”
But apparently the ghost understood, because it keened, a high despairing sound sharp enough to shatter the glass of whisky on my desk, soaking my papers and lobbing an eye watering stench of ethanol into the room for good measure. But that must have distracted it somehow because the pressure eased slightly and my breathing adjusted itself to the restricted supply of air.
“Amy,” I said deliberately using its name in life as much as possible, “Jerry’s asked me to find and kill the people who did this to you. I said I would.”
Promises, the very words that contain them, have power and no one knows that better than the dead. So I wasn’t entirely surprised when it let me go. What I wasn’t prepared for was force of it and I almost fell off the chair, choking. As I righted myself and my lungs became reacquainted with an unrestricted oxygen supply, it calmly took up its original position hanging like a ragged curtain above the photographs as though nothing had happened.
Now all I had to do was come up with the goods.