“I know what ghosts are. It might surprise you, but they aren’t the souls of dead people. They aren’t psychic residue, and they have nothing to do with time travel,” Schaffer said, running through the themes of my last three books.
I set a cup of coffee on the table before the shabby, gray-haired man and settled into the chair across from him. Schaffer was unkempt, but not necessarily slovenly. I figured him for a man who probably spent a lot of time in front of a mirror before he became too distracted by whatever it was that was haunting him. Looking at him, I would have guessed he was about sixty, but the ashen complexion and bags under his eyes could have been recent additions to a much younger face. I assumed he was a crank, ninety nine percent of them are, but it never hurt to hear them out. There was always a chance he would give me something crazy enough to fill a chapter or two. When he called and suggested he fly up from New Mexico to see me, I figured I had nothing to lose other than a few hours of my time. Turning the recorder on, I sat back and waited for him to lay it out for me. He tasted the coffee, and lit a cigarette with shaking hands. I pushed the ashtray toward him and nodded to let him know the tape was rolling.
“I’ve read your work,” he said with a sneer. “It’s mostly bullshit.”
“So, why bring your story to me then?” I asked, unoffended. He was right. I had been faking it for years. After seven books, my Ghost Detective series was getting stale. I needed a new angle.
“Because, mixed in with all the pseudoscience and outright fabrications, I read somethings that probably even you didn’t realize might be genuine. Also, you have an audience,” he said. “Going through you is the best method for getting the truth out. I just have to convince you to include it.”
“You don’t have to convince me,” I told him. “You just have to entertain me. If I like it, my readers will probably like it too. Of course, I can’t offer you a share of the royalties, but I can see you get credit. It could lead to some consulting gigs and maybe even a book deal for you. Give me something original.”
“I don’t want credit,” he snapped, leaning forward to grind his cigarette butt into the ash tray. He immediately lit another, took a long drag, and got the kind of faraway look in his eyes not usually used by people who still had something left to lose. “Once things like that mattered to me, but not anymore. It’s out there, and people need to know about it.”
That answered my first question. There are three types of people who approach me for an interview, those who want money, those who want some small measure of fame, and the kooks. My guest fit into the kook category, a true believer who just wanted to inflict his delusions on the world. That was fine. The kooks usually gave me my best material.
“One of the reasons I agreed to interview you was because you said you had your paranormal encounter in New Mexico,” I said. “I’ve been looking for a new setting for my latest book, something other than the usual cemetery or abandoned mental hospital. I think this setting would be ideal. Can you start by giving me your impressions of the area?”
“It happened just outside of Corona,” he said breathlessly, as though he wanted to get it all out before something cut him off. “There are vast stretches where at night it’s just stars and sand, and when a breeze blows in from the distant hills, it hits you like a fist because there is nothing to stop it. I suppose most people would find it lonely, but it suited me. I had a fairly successful career as a taxidermist, mostly working for museums, but occasionally doing work for private individuals. As a result, I’d managed to save up enough to buy some land. It was close enough to Corona that I wouldn’t have to travel far for supplies, but isolated enough to allow me to pursue my hobbies in peace.”
“What hobbies were those?” I asked.
“Taxidermy, of course, and astronomy,” he said, taking another sip of coffee. Watching his hand shake as he lifted the mug to his lips, I thought the last thing he needed was more caffeine. “I had purchased a telescope and set it up on the roof of my cabin,” he continued. “Nearly every night I was up there, taking advantage of a sky unspoiled by light pollution. The sky was beautiful to me then.”
“And now?” I interrupted.
“Now, not so much. Now I can’t even stand to look up at night, knowing what’s out there. I saw it fall!” He was losing it. He ran his fingers through his hair, took a deep breath, and then continued in more measured tones: “At first I thought it was a shooting star, but there was a bright flash when it hit off on the horizon in the direction of Cibola. I knew something had crashed.”
I stopped him.
“I thought you were going to tell me about ghosts. This is starting to sound like a story about UFOs. That’s not in my line.”
“Don’t you see? That’s where the ghosts come from,” he whispered conspiratorially. “What we think of as ghosts are actually extraterrestrials.”
I wasn’t sure I liked that. It certainly didn’t follow the narrative I had set up in my other books. Still, I had never bothered much with continuity. It was possible I could make it work. I told him to go on with his story.
“I was curious, and, like a fool, set off in my truck to investigate. I could see the plumes of smoke all the way from US 54. Infused with a greenish glow emanating from its base, it drifted up past the summit of Gallinas Peak to blot out the stars.
“By the time I reached the crater, the smoke had miraculously vanished, but there was still a faint green glow to the soil. There was a mass of something in the crater, but I couldn’t tell what it was, or rather, what it had been. At first I thought it was a meteor, but parts of it were shiny and smooth, like the surface of some kind of machine. I was still trying to figure it out when a white mist drifted up to hang in the air before me. I didn’t pay much attention to it at first, but soon I was struck by the odd way it just hung there in front of me. I developed the odd notion it was studying me.”
“That is odd,” I agreed. “Whatever gave you that impression?”
“I don’t know” he said. “It was like the sensation you get when you feel someone is watching you from behind even though you can’t see them. I don’t know how it works, but you’re just suddenly aware of it. It was strong enough to make me feel uneasy, and I started to back away from the crater, but the mist followed me, hovering around me as though it was about to reach out and strangle me. I know it sounds silly, but it really shook me up. I started to run, but no matter how fast I went the mist kept up with me. I imagined it tugging at my pants legs, trying to pull me back, and I pushed myself until I finally reached the truck, jumped in and closed the door. As I started the ignition, the mist congealed into a cloud and spread downward. It formed legs, and from those legs sprouted a torso and then a head with a face that looked like a mockery of my own. Two arms sprouted from the torso and reached for the door handle, but I already had the truck in gear and sped off.”
“That’s a good yarn,” I told him, “but I’m not sure my readers will buy it as a ghost story.”
“That’s not the end of it,” he said solemnly. “It followed me. The damn thing followed me home! It was just like the accounts in your books. At first it was just the sensation of being watched, and things turning up in odd places, but it escalated. Soon I was hearing footsteps out in the hall and seeing things move out of the corner of my eye. I would enter a room and see it darting into the shadows or slipping under the crack of a door. And, despite the heat, this was the middle of summer, I was always cold. Even outside on the porch in the middle of the day, I would get a chill that set my teeth chattering. At night I would sit before the fire, wrapped in a blanket, shivering as the shadows crept about the corners of the room, reaching out to grope at my feet. The worst part was what it did to my specimens. I found a white-tailed rabbit that had somehow bloated, the skin stretched away from the form inside until it had swollen to almost twice its natural size. A few days later, a gray fox I had mounted with closed jaws had its muzzle pried apart and its glass eyes torn from its head. Then there was the squirrel.”
He paused as if gathering the courage to relive it.
“I noticed it was missing from the display case, and looking about, found it perched on the back of my recliner. For a moment, it was alive. As I walked toward it, it turned its head and looked at me before going stiff and falling into the seat of the chair. I must have stared at it for an hour before I found the courage to pick it up and examine it. I even cut it open, but found only cotton and wire.
“It was then that I thought of you. My ex-wife had all of your books, and would go on for hours about the hauntings you depicted. I had dismissed it as hokum at the time, but now that I was experiencing such things myself, I decided to take another look. I remembered seeing a copy of that one with the skulls on the cover…”
“The Poltergeist Connection?”
“Yes, that was the one. I found it mixed in with a box of my crime novels. I read it cover to cover. Suddenly it was a lot more believable.”
“OK,” I said. “I can see where this is going. All the phenomena we attribute to spirits, or at least some of it, is actually due to the presence of other worldly beings. I think I can work with that.”
“Then you’ll put it in your book?” he asked. “You’ll warn everyone about what is happening?”
“I think I will,” I responded, clicking off the recorder. “When could I come out and have a look around, maybe shoot some pictures?”
He told me he’d been staying at a hotel in Roswell, but that he could go back to show me around anytime I thought convenient. We set up a date for the coming weekend. On his way out I handed him a copy of “Ghost Detective Adventures.”
“Thanks,” he said, looking it over, “but watching horror movies is the last thing on my list of things to do right now.”
“It isn’t a movie,” I informed him. “It’s a computer game. You can download different skins for the playable characters. The kids love it.”
Though he took it with a polite smile, his eyes said he needed a translator. I didn’t think it was worth the effort it would take to explain it to him, so I just offered him my hand and told him I would call when I landed in New Mexico.
My plane had been held up the day we were to meet, and although the car I rented had a nifty GPS feature, I still managed to get turned around. The sun was setting, and I was still about fifty miles out from Corona. I was about to call him to apologize for being so late, when my phone rang.
“It was experimenting while I was gone!” a frantic voice shouted into my ear. “It’s worse than I could have imagined! It spoke to me!”
I told him to calm down and that he could tell me about it when I got there in a little less than an hour, but I don’t think he even heard me. He was ranting, jabbering about it wanting to be able to walk among men, and how it wanted to use him for something. It got so bad I would have written him off and turned around if I hadn’t already invested in a trip out there. It was becoming clear my kook was a full-on lunatic. I stretched out an arm and retrieved the revolver from the glove compartment. By the time I pulled up the drive leading to his house, it was loaded and ready to slide under my waistband as soon as I stepped out of the car.
The porch light was on, but the windows were all dark. I had expected him to meet me outside when he heard me pull up, but there was no sign he had heard me, or even that he was there, other than the Ford pickup parked in the grass in front of the house. As I passed it, I noticed the dust blowing in from the desert had already started to build up on the windshield, and the hood was cold. The porch steps creaked as I put my weight on them, and the wind tossed something that looked like steel wool against the aluminum door. It screamed as it scraped its way down the screen, announcing my presence before I was ready to face whatever was inside. It was only then that I realized I had been creeping up to the house with my hand on the grip of my revolver. I had to chuckle at that. Imagine, the great Ghost Detective getting spooked!
The inside door was open, and the porch light illuminated the interior just enough for me to see the glass eyes of the stuffed beasts in the display case glaring back at me. There was a recliner set up before the case, with its back to the door. I tapped on the screen door, and called out, but the only answer was the squeal of the chair as whoever was sitting in it straightened up. I could see the back of his head, bobbing to and fro in a slow and steady rhythm. I opened the door and stepped inside. Again I called out, and again no one responded. There was a reading lamp on the table by the recliner, and I walked over to switch it on.
Schaffer’s skin looked waxen in the dim light of the lamp. He sat in the chair, his head lolling from side to side as though he were asleep on the deck of a ship. He wore a pair of dark sunglasses pressed tight against the bridge of his nose, and had cotton stuffed in both ears. I looked around the room, wondering what he could have seen to produce such a reaction, and why, if it had been so horrible, he hadn’t just left. Why stay in the room with your eyes closed and your ears plugged up? Thinking he was suffering from a paresis brought about by some psychological shock, I considered stepping outside to call an ambulance, but I decided to reach out to him first. I touched his hand. It was cold, the flesh spongy like a balloon filled with water. I jerked back my hand, but he didn’t react at all. Something was very wrong with the man. Worried, I shook him, and the glasses slid off into his lap.
At first, seeing no irises or pupils, I assumed his eyes had rolled back up into his head, but I quickly saw it was something much worse. What I had mistaken for eyes was actually a white vapor swirling around in the empty sockets.
I jumped back. Unsure of what I was seeing or how to react, I stood there gaping at him, but my stupor was short lived. As his head rose, and his jaw fell open, the mist streamed forth from his mouth and eye sockets. I screamed and emptied my gun into him, then watched in horror as he bled white vapor. It was relentless, and it was ravenous. It enveloped me, shoving suffocating tendrils up my nose and into my mouth. I covered my face and ran. It followed, clinging to my legs as I reached the car, yanked open the door and dove into the front seat. I rolled over and it drifted in on top of me as I jabbed at the dash with the key, finally getting it into the ignition. I’d left the radio on when I’d arrived, and the voice of the DJ blared out of the speakers as I turned the key. The vapor swirled about violently at the sound and rushed back out to form the shape of a man beside the car. At first it looked like an ice sculpture of Schaffer, but as it opened its mouth as if to scream, its features contorted and I found myself staring into a washed out version of my own face. I slammed the door shut, and sped off, grinding the gas pedal into the floorboard until I reached the highway.
I never called the police. I knew all too well from conducting countless interviews with people who had been in similar, though less extreme, circumstances how that would go. I never included the incident in any of my books either, although I knew it would impress my readers. I just couldn’t bring myself to publish it. It was difficult enough to record it here in my private journal. I suppose my biggest fear was that my publisher would insist on illustrating the tale on the cover, and I would be forced to relive it all with each copy I signed. I knew I would not be able to maintain my composure, especially when I recalled how that mist had chilled me as it caressed my skin, or how Shaffer’s body had collapsed and shriveled as whatever it was that had been inside him abandoned it.
This story previously appeared in Dark Dossier in 2022.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Lamont A. Turner's work has appeared in over 200 online and print venues including Mystery Weekly, Mystery Tribune, Cosmic Horror Monthly, Christmas Gothic, and other magazines, podcasts and anthologies. His collections, "Souls In A Blender" and "Bleeding Out In The Rain" were recently published by St.Rooster Books. Check out his author page on Amazon.