“My father killed my mother here. Or maybe she killed him. I was six.”
Will Ayres looked at the walls. “Somebody painted. It used to be blue.”
The room was a typical child’s bedroom: stuffed animals, pink sheets, a music player and a few books on a dresser with a long mirror. The blinds were closed.
I looked at my clients, a young African-American couple: Mitch and Kate Freeman.
Kate shrugged. “It was beige when we bought it.” Her husband Mitch nodded.
Ayres backed out of the bedroom, his feet shaking. “Sorry. Could I get a glass of water?”
Mitch headed for the kitchen. Kate crossed her arms. “I’m really sorry to ask you to do this.”
Ayres groaned softly. “It’s okay. Mr. Jurgen said you have ghosts?” He glanced at me.
Me. Tom Jurgen, ex-reporter and private detective. Yeah, I tend to attract cases like this. It’s one thing to have a specialty, but mine has turned out to be supernatural activity. Maybe because I’m stubborn, or maybe I just don’t believe the usual excuses for things most people want to pretend didn’t happen.
Freeman brought Ayres his water and we went into the living room.
The 11th floor condo had three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a view of Chicago looking south. The Freemans had a flatscreen TV, a stereo, and a Chagall print on the wall between two well-stocked bookcases.
“It’s our daughter’s room,” Kate said, sitting down. “Caitlyn. She’s seven.”
“She’s staying with my parents now,” Freeman added quickly.
“She started hearing noises—banging on the wall, moans, a dog barking. That sort of thing,” Kate went on. “At first we thought it was the neighbors, or bad dreams. Then about a week ago I went in to check on her, and I looked in the mirror over her dresser and there was . . . someone standing behind me.” She shuddered. “Covered in blood.”
I’d heard the story, so I watched for Ayres’s reaction.
He kept his emotions off his face, but his fingers tensed around the glass. “Was it my mother or my father?”
“It was a woman. In a nightgown. She had long black hair. I didn’t really . . .” She looked at the floor. “I grabbed Caitlyn and ran into the bedroom and slammed the door. Blocked it with a chair. And I put a sheet over the mirror there.”
Freeman cleared his throat, watching his wife nervously. “I saw it too. A couple of times. Once in the mirror. One time leaning out the bedroom door. But it wasn’t a woman. It was a man in jeans, no shirt, blood all over his chest—”
“Stop.” Ayres leaned forward and covered his face in his hands. “Please stop.”
“I’m sorry.” Kate leaned forward and pushed a box of tissues across the table next to his glass.
Ayres trembled, gasping, for two full minutes.
Mitch Freeman had called me after they’d done their own research. They discovered that 19 years ago, a bloody suicide/murder had taken place in the condo they were now living in. They had the basic facts, but they wanted more information.
Tracking down Will Ayres, the only child of Jeffrey and Mona Ayres, hadn’t been difficult. Convincing him to return to the site of his parents’ deaths had also been surprisingly easy.
In his thirties, Will had short brown hair and slender shoulders. He wrote marketing copy for an advertising firm downtown.
Now he looked up, gulped some water, and stared at all three of us through thin, haunted eyes. “What the—what do you want from me?”
“I’m sorry.” It came from Mitch this time. “We don’t want to upset you. We just thought—if we knew more about what happened—it would help us get rid of the ghosts.”
“We really don’t want to move.” Kate glanced out the window at the Chicago skyline at night—tall buildings light up against gray clouds. “And we don’t want someone else to have to deal with this.”
“Did anyone else ever complain?” I’d asked this before, but I wanted Will to hear it now.
“I asked the management office.” Mitch smirked. “Of course they didn’t say anything. But I called the lawyer for the couple we bought the place from. He almost hung up on me before just saying he didn’t know anything about it.”
“I was six.” Will rubbed his hands over his face. “I don’t remember much about it. I don’t think I ever heard my parents even arguing. I just—I had some kind of nightmare. Sparky was barking—I had a little puppy—and I woke up and there was screaming. I hid under the covers until it stopped. I think I actually feel asleep? Then a policeman took me away, and I went to live with my grandma.”
He took a deep breath. “I never really—she didn’t talk about it. I didn’t really know what happened for a long time. Then one day she showed me a newspaper article she’d kept. That was the first time I really knew why I was living with her and why I wasn’t living with my parents, but it took me a long time to really understand what happened. I still don’t.”
He wasn’t actually crying, but he grabbed a handful of tissues and blew his nose. “Sorry. There’s just not that much I can tell you.”
“What happened to Sparky?” I asked.
Will shook his head. “I don’t know. He didn’t come with me to my grandma’s. I don’t know if he got—if he—”
Now he was crying. Loud, hacking sobs as he grabbed more and more tissues until the box was empty. Kate and her husband looked at each other helplessly.
Finally Will threw the last of the tissues on the carpet and stood up. “I have to go.”
We all stood up. “We’re very sorry,” Kate said. “Thank you for coming.”
He didn’t look at any of us as we all walked him to the door. Then he turned and forced a smile.
“I haven’t ever really talked about it.” He shrugged. “Maybe I should.”
Freeman opened the door for him. He walked down the hall as a dog barked inside an apartment on the other side.
Kate fixed drinks—wine for her, bourbon for her husband, and a beer for me. Freeman picked up the tissues and threw them away as we sat.
“So now what?” I sipped my beer.
Kate sighed. “I guess we ask our minister if he knows anything about getting rid of ghosts.”
Freeman grunted a laughed. “Pastor Mills? I’m not sure he believes in God, let alone ghosts.”
“I know an ex-priest who does exorcisms.” He owned a bar now. “I’m not sure if he handles ghosts, but—”
“I still think if we knew more about it, we could make it go away.” Freeman was an attorney. He liked facts.
“Don’t you have some experience with—things like this?” Kate looked embarrassed. A lot of my clients do.
“Some.” I searched my memory. “Sometimes ghosts want—an acknowledgement. An apology. Knowing more about what happened could help us figure out what they’re looking for.” I peered down the hall to Caitlyn’s room. “Have you seen them since she went to live with your parents?”
Freeman shivered. “I’ve been afraid to look back there. Tonight was the first time I looked inside.”
“Maybe I could spend the night? If I saw them—”and managed not to flee in screaming terror—“I might notice something.”
They glanced at each other. “I guess,” Freeman said. “Are you going to sleep in her room?”
That would be awkward under lots of circumstances. “No. I’ll just sit up out here. If that’s okay.”
“Let me get you some blankets.” Freeman stood up.
It was only 8:30. I stood up too. “I’ll leave you alone for a while. Call me when you’re ready for me to come back.”
“We usually go to bed at 10.” Kate stood up as well. “We should call Caitlyn about now. Why don’t you come back around then?”
“Fine.” I finished my beer. “See you then.”
I found a coffee shop with wi-fi, ordered a double espresso, and called Rachel.
“What? I’m sort of busy.” Her fingers tapped on her laptop. “Two new jobs, both urgent. I’m going to be up all night.”
“Me too. I’m looking for ghosts in my clients’ condo.”
Rachel laughed. “Ooh, who you gonna call? Tom Jurgen? You ain’t afraid of no ghost!”
Rachel’s sort of psychic, which comes in handy for my work. She’s also my girlfriend, which comes in handy in other ways.
I blew over my espresso. “I am definitely afraid of ghosts. Especially when they come covered in blood because they died in a double murder.”
“Yikes. You want me there? Oh, wait, tonight is my night to wash my hair.”
“All night?” Her red hair is almost as short as mine. I’m in my forties, and it’s mostly sparse and gray.
“As long as it takes to keep me away from trouble. Call me if you need to scream.”
I gulped my coffee. “I’ll let you know.”
I nursed my espresso for an hour until the coffee shop started closing up. So I packed my laptop, dropped five dollars in the tip jar, and made my way back to the Freemans’ condo.
“I hope I’m not too early. The baristas were staring to glare at me.” I waited in the hallway. The dog was still barking down the hall. “I can hang out in the lobby for a while if you want.”
Mitch smiled. “It’s all right. We’re getting ready for bed.”
Blankets and a pillow lay on the couch. “You can sleep there, on in the chair, whatever.” He gestured to the kitchen. “You can help yourself to anything in the fridge. Snacks, water, beer. I set up the coffeemaker.”
I felt embarrassed. “I didn’t mean to invade your privacy. But thanks.”
“No problem. Just . . .” He glanced down the hall way his daughter’s room. “Be careful.”
Kate emerged from the bedroom in a long robe. “You came back.”
Of course. “I’ll try not to disturb you.”
“Caitlyn’s having nightmares. So am I.” She looked exhausted. “See you in the morning.”
The chair had a clear view down the hall to Caitlyn’s room, so I sat down, pulled out my laptop, and kicked off my shoes.
I usually go to bed around 11:30 or midnight, so I was still fairly awake. I’m no Jack Bauer, but once I stayed up for almost 48 hours working on a newspaper story about a serial killer. I figured I could handle a night dozing off and on in a chair, waiting for a ghost.
I watched YouTube for a while, checked some of the blogs I read, and then texted Rachel. “Done washing your hair?”
She came back right away. “Any ghosts yet?”
“Not so far. But it’s early.”
“Call me if you see anything. Pictures or it didn’t happen.”
“What are you doing?”
“Working all night. Like you. Stop bothering me.”
It was almost like sitting next to her. “Love you.”
“That’s what I mean! I’m going to sleep.”
We have a complicated relationship.
I dozed, woke up, and dozed again. The lights from the Board of Trade building downtown rose in the dark sky. I stood up, stretching, and looked down at the street below. Cabs drove fast, buses went slow. Pedestrians dodged crossing the street. A man and a woman stalked down the sidewalk, arguing. A police car flashed its lights at a minivan trying to back into a parking space at a bus stop.
I went back to the chair and fell asleep.
I woke up at one in the morning, stretched again, and sipped some water. I peered down the hall. Nothing.
Just to be sure, I padded forward in my socks. The door was open. Inside the bedroom, in the dim light coming through the closed blinds, I saw the same pink sheets and stuffed animals.
I bit my lip and turned toward the mirror. What if . . .
But I only saw my own face, shrouded in shadow. I rubbed my cheeks. I needed to shave.
So I went back into the living room again, wide awake now. I fired up my laptop and went looking for 1980s music videos. David Bowie, Talking Heads, even Tears for Fears. These would keep me up. I found Bruce Springsteen and sat back, my hands over my head. Waiting.
Nothing good happens at 4:00 in the morning.
I lurched up. My laptop dropped off my knees. I grabbed my phone and checked the time. 4:02 a.m.
Something knocked down the hall.
I forced myself to my feet, looking for my shoes. I couldn’t find them. So I headed down the hall, using my phone as a flashlight. Following the pounding.
The door was open. I stayed back, listening. Water in the pipes? Neighbors arguing?
Then I stepped into the room, hoping I wouldn’t have to flee in terror in my socks.
The bedroom was empty. Darker now—most of the city lights were off. I leaned against the doorway, trying to breathe slow.
“Hello?” My voice was a whisper. “Anyone there?”
Nothing answered. So I turned toward the mirror.
A woman drenched in blood stood behind me.
I whirled around. But she was gone.
So I turned back, slowly, my hands shaking as I held up my phone. There she was, in the mirror.
I tried for a picture. Two, three. I expected the woman to vanish, even though I’d turned the flash off. But she stayed behind me, staring at the floor, blood covering her white nightgown.
I cleared my throat, wishing for some water. “Mona Ayres?”
She looked up. “J-Jeffrey?”
Her husband. Will Ayres’s father.
“No.” I shook my head, feeling dizzy. “I’m Tom. I’m a friend of your son. Will?”
Yeah, “friend” was stretching it. But I had to say something to establish some kind of rapport.
It worked. The ghost of Mona Ayres lowered her head, crying. “Will . . . Will . . .”
Then the other one—Jeffrey?—stood behind her, a hand on her shoulder. Blood streaking his bare hairy chest.
I turned again. This time they were both in front of me, in the bedroom. Flickering in the darkness.
I took a picture. Then another. Then Jeffrey snarled. “Stop that!”
I stumbled back through the doorway, my heart pounding. “Why are you here?”
“I don’t want to be here!” Mona’s shriek rattled the blinds behind her. “Take me away, take me away . . .”
Jeffrey grabbed his wife’s hand. “It’s all right. Don’t worry. It’ll be all right.”
And then for a moment the blood was gone. They stood in the bedroom in formal clothes, as if posing for a wedding picture.
Mona sobbed. “Will . . . Will?”
“Your son is fine.” I shoved the phone in my pocket. “I talked to him tonight. He just doesn’t understand what happened.”
Now Jeffrey was covered in blood again. My feet skidded on the carpet as I backed away.
They crowded the narrow hall. Blood dripped over their bodies again. Over their faces, down their shoulders, down to their feet.
“What the hell?” It was Mitch Freeman, behind me, in sweatpants and a T-shirt. “Oh god . . . oh god . . .”
I wanted to run, but Freeman was right behind me. So I lifted my hands. Which were trembling. “Wait! Please! You don’t have to scare anyone! There was a little girl here—”
Mona screamed. “No! No! We didn’t do it!” Mona sank down on knees. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”
Her feet disappeared as if a hole had opened up beneath her. She looked up at the ceiling, sobbing. “I’m sorry . . .”
Her body slid down and disappeared.
I tensed. As much as I could, with my entire body shaking in fear. “I didn’t do that.”
Jeffrey groaned. “Just tell Will we love him. Tell him . . .”
He stepped back into the bedroom.
Was he gone? Only one way to find out. Just not the way I wanted.
But I forced myself to the bedroom door. Peered at the mirror. Looking for them.
All I saw in the dark reflection was my own face, twitching with terror.
“Mitch?” Kate’s voice echoed around the hall. “What the hell’s going on?”